Review - Promised Land

I was comfortable in my seat at the Hyland Cinema and all set to call Gus Van Sant’s new film Promised Land (2012) a solid if minor piece of work. That was about three quarters of the way through the film, and then it unraveled with an incredibly silly twist ending and Oscar-bait speech by one of its leads. Tough to tackle these complaints head on without creating spoilers, but while they are a bit hard to swallow, I don’t think they completely sink the film. I have to say, though, the reveal at the end is executed shockingly clumsily. A character does an about-face with about as much subtly as someone whipping off a rubber mask on the old Mission Impossible TV show.

I always get nervous when I see the names of movie stars signing off on a screenplay credit. Granted, writer David Ellin gets a story credit here, which does make me wonder how much of this was really an Ellin blueprint that actors Matt Damon and John Krasinski helped colour-in with the words that come out of their characters' mouths. Damon is right at home playing ambitious corporate salesman Steve Butler, a man who is on the verge of a big promotion at Global Crosspower Solutions, contingent on him pulling off one more job in the field. His job (with Frances McDormand in tow as his colleague) is to pitch natural gas drilling to townsfolk and get them to sign over the rights to their land. Butler himself was born in a small farming community and relies on this innate knowledge of rural life to play to the emotions as part of his sales persona.

Damon’s campaign meets a number of obstacles. First, when a high school science teacher (Hal Holbrook) stands up at a town meeting to decry the potential dangers of natural gas drilling or ‘fracking.’ Second, when a charming environmentalist named Dustin (Krasinski) shows up with a persuasive bit of evidence that puts Global in a bad light and turns the town against Damon’s efforts to get the town to vote for natural gas. Finally, the two men get involved in a bit of a love triangle with another local teacher played by Rosemarie DeWitt with plenty of endearing charm.

This setup is fine enough. The characters are introduced competently and the fish out of water parts of the story work well. There’s even some humor in the relationships that develop between the film’s coterie of characters. Those character moments keep the film afloat I think. There’s also the fact that Van Sant masterfully lulls the viewer into a small town state of mind with his lush green photography of the farmland. The sun comes through the trees as it sets on the horizon and the protagonists drive by the rolling pastures. His editing pace is also deliberately brought to a graceful slow tempo. I would imagine the average shot length here is much longer than the average film of the day.

There are a lot of problems though, which prevent me from giving this film a wholehearted recommendation. Most of them are in the final act, but there’s also the fact that Krasinski is, I’m afraid, not very good in his role. He’s most well known for his work on the American version of The Office, and he really has the exact same soft smart-alec delivery here. He’s Jim Halpert with a pickup truck and I didn’t believe his performance for a second.

The film also requires that the characters take some pretty big leaps and have sea changes in their moral positions over the course of the narrative. This means the film has to hinge on some syrupy speeches where the ethical dilemmas start coming out of the characters' mouths in overwritten monologues that are unsubtle and a little preachy.

Nonetheless, I like the way Van Sant framed this film and I do think he succeeded in giving this drama a sense of place that grounds the events. Damon was originally going to direct this project himself, but I’m glad he turned over the reigns to a more seasoned director. Without that sense of rural atmosphere, this film could have been unbearable. As an actor though, Damon again proves to be one of the best leading men of his generation. He wears the strain of Steve Butler’s questioning of his own position in life quite convincingly and is believable as an ordinary guy instead of a star doing a pose.

Van Sant has made an eclectic bunch of films over his career including some really bold ones but also some sentimental commercial dramas like Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester. This is a film like those, but not as good as either. Maybe those examples will help you decide whether or not this is worth the time to go and see. I could go either way on this one.

(Out of 4 Stars)

Paul Hantiuk is a local film enthusiast and occasional freelance writer


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