Laments for the American heartland are nothing new. A century ago the publication of O, Pioneers! observed changes in the prairie lifestyle and mourned the loss of a deep spiritual connection to the land. More recently, documentaries like Fast Food Nation and Gasland have taken good, hard looks at the unsustainability of huge corporate practices and the agrarian-based lifestyle of small town farming communities in the Midwest.
Promised Land seeks to combine these two concepts, telling a compelling narrative about a battle between two natural gas reps, Steve (Matt Damon) and Sue (Francis McDormand), and a canny science teacher (Hal Holbrook) and upstart environmentalist (John Krasinksi) in the small town of McKinley, PA, while also illuminating its own position on the larger issues of natural gas drilling. Based on a Dave Eggers’ short story, these are certainly not contradictory impulses, but Matt Damon and John Krasinski’s script fumbles any sort of balance between them, and like all houses divided against themselves, the film cannot stand.
Promised Land, directed by a Gus Van-Sant who’s very clearly driving automatic, not stick, is still pleasingly, unpretentiously good to look at, neither avoiding nor overdoing small-town clichés like the local Guns, Groceries, Guitars, and Gas shop, Buddy’s Bar, or the high school gym (home of the Pioneers!). It is there that Holbrook’s Frank Yale first causes a ruckus by asking his fellow townspeople to google the term ‘fracking,’ and stymies Damon by successfully lobbying for a vote on whether to sell land to the gas company.
The entire cast, too, are exactly the sort of people you’d want to spend ninety minutes with, from Titus Welliver’s sardonically endearing store owner to Rosemary DeWitt’s schoolteacher with a spark in her eye whom both Damon and Krasinksi attempt to romance (because obviously) to Francis McDormand as Damon’s partner, bringing a sharp humor and fierce energy to Sue, and, as usual, improving every scene by her presence. One of the film’s strongest points is Damon himself, however, who we first meet on the cusp of a big promotion to corporate in New York but whose Iowa roots actually drive his work to offer farmers what he considers ‘a way out,’ in the form of cash windfalls from the gas company’s leases to drill. You get the sense that the breakup of his small town drives who he is and what he does, and it’s wonderful that the usual villain of such a piece as this, the company man, is actually a complex, believable character and the true recipient of audience sympathy.
Enter the unbelievable part of the movie, lead by Krasinski’s Dustin Noble. Really, his name says everything you need to know, but the film, in order to offer convincing arguments against the indeed alarming environmental hazards of natural gas drilling processes, actually just gives him a bunch of screentime to lecture DeWitt’s classroom. Dustin, Steve, and the film itself use the kids of McKinley as ways to ingratiate themselves and make their points, which has the unfortunate effect of making the viewer feel like the movie’s talking down to you. Damon’s interactions with the townsfolk become increasingly limited to Kransinki, DeWitt, and Holbrook, cornering him between the three for being such a corporate tool when he should know better. Steve is such a strong presence earlier that you notice when the film starts to strangle his voice and initially interesting characters like Welliver’s Rob or DeWitt’s Alice slide into stock attitudes and poses.
It’s a shame that both the environmental battle for the land and the battle for Steve’s homegrown decency are reduced to the level of lectures and disappointed, parental looks from Holbrook.
While the second act’s ideological axe to grind gets in the way of Steve’s characterization and the film’s narrative development, the third act’s narrative development completely blows all the film’s credibility out of the water. There are a series of plot twists that, while unexpected, are not shocking. Dustin’s effortless affability, it turns out, obscures some buried motives, while Steve’s choices and internal conflict become increasingly less motivated. Neither Damon nor Krasinski seemed to realize the irony of applying huge contrivances to a story of corporate rigging, and it’s final, blanket lefty stance undoes the smart things people do say about the issues the film wants to examine.
Ultimately, the film is a schmaltzy, lukewarm rumination, the kind that Jon Stewart democrats have all the time, bringing up reasonable points and briefly considering counterpoints about key issues we need to solve without actually finding a solution. Not that Promised Land needs to provide one, of course. But the film’s somewhat abrupt, deeply sentimental ending certainly doesn’t earn its ambiguity, provide viewers with much of a sense of closure, or offer us something intellectual to chew on. It would’ve been nice if the film had at least done one of those.
The entire cast turns in incredibly charming performances for a film that’s trying to sell you a specific ideology; however, as Frank Capra once said, “If you want to send a message, try Western Union.”
Take a Drink: whenever Hal Holbrook or John Krasinski make points while also looking incredibly disappointed at Damon.
Take a Drink: for every shot with an American flag in it.
Take a Drink: during the super white-bred song interludes.
Do a Shot: for the Karaoke, of course.
Finish Your Drink: if and when Battlestar Galactica-related connotations of the word ‘fracking’ cause you to giggle at an inappropriate moment.