PROMISED LAND easily could have fallen the way of being nothing more than a preachy environmental message against the evils of fracking at a time when it’s abundantly clear that corporations are more soulless than ever before, shoving people to the bottom of their list of priorities in favor of numerous items about their bottom lines. However, in the crafty hands of director Gus Van Sant, using the likeability of Matt Damon as his most effective tool, PROMISED LAND surprises by using the vehicle of this natural gas extraction technique to tell an engaging and effective story about a man capable of redemption at every turn after his job working for such a company has, in many respects, turned him into something he never envisioned himself as – a bad guy.
Damon plays Steve Butler, the top salesperson for a natural gas drilling company, sent in to close another town, securing the drilling rights for his employers at a fraction of the price point that other teams have been dishing out. These farming communities in Middle America recognize him as one of their own, having grown up in similar surroundings during his younger days, and, as a result, they’re more likely to buy the story that he’s selling… the one that involves them sitting on an untapped fortune that could make them millionaires. That may not be anywhere close to the truth, but it’s the only thing they can believe, as it’s really the only chance for any type of economic recovery to come upon these struggling towns where shops like Rob’s Guns, Groceries, Guitars and Gas are a staple.
Steve has one more job to do before moving onto his promotion as the new VP of Land Management, which, of course lines him up for his most difficult opposition yet, as he and his partner (Frances McDormand) square off against an informed science teacher (Hal Holbrook) and a one-man environmental group (John Krasinski), who hope to raise enough awareness about the environmental dangers of fracking enough to send natural gas packing, unable to buy their small town, no matter the price. Stuck in the middle is a prospective love interest named Alice (the lovely Rosemarie DeWitt), whose constantly flirtatious chemistry with Damon starts to widen the cracks in Steve, showing him as a compassionate guy who does care what others think of him rather than a stone cold corporate shill who only cares about getting them to sign on the line that is dotted. He’s not the bad guy that some might perceive him to be, peddling a product that has raped the land and killed off the environment in other towns in the past. In his mind, if those cases were true, then he’d know about them. His company would pass along that vital information. They wouldn’t have him in the dark about such matters that would ruin Anytown, U.S.A. He may be a killer, but he’s an innocent killer, adding further complexity to the character. He knows what he’s selling to these people is bullshit, knowing full well that the likelihood of them seeing the reaches he’s dangling out there in front of them is next to none, yet he chooses to look past the idea that the very company he is working for is incapable of any wrongdoing. In a lesser film, you might question the smarts of Steve, as he seems to lack common sense in some pretty vital areas, but there is still a boyish charm to Damon that has you fully accepting his skewed innocence, never doubting that maybe he just chooses to believe what he wants to believe, in light of the incredible success such an occupation has afforded him to date.
This is another strong performance by Damon, aided by having the perfect opponent in Krasinski’s Dustin Noble. Krasinski comes to town, representing a grassroots environmental group, willing to do whatever to spread the word on fracking, ending the cycle of town after town buying into the lies and decimating their collective ways of life. Noble is actually able to top the affability of Steve, drawing more and more supporters to his cause, making Steve’s task all the more difficult. Krasinski (who co-wrote the script with Damon) adds a passion to the film, turning the argument about dollars and cents into one about people, and watching him get the better of Damon one occasion after another really turns up the stakes in PROMISED LAND, bringing out the win-at-all-costs nature of this corporate wolf who still insists he’s not a bad guy – he may not be his job, but it certainly does bring out the worst in him.
A clever twist late in the story serves more as a “Gotcha!” moment than anything else, as it sends PROMISED LAND’s third act into some familiar and predictable territory as it quickly starts heading for a bit of a clichéd resolution. At the moment, it really turns the movie on its head, but it can’t maintain its path of uncertainty and not knowing how Steve’s mission will turn out when it shakes things up in such a way that it only has one way to go. It is a brilliant idea that does work within the film, but PROMISED LAND does have to pay the small price of no longer keeping you on your toes in order to execute it.
PROMISED LAND is a good little film that definitely warrants a watch. Damon continues to be at his best, a level he rarely falls beneath, and I think you’ll find yourself surprised at how quickly you’re drawn into its story. This is a really quality movie to spend a couple of hours with, I promise.
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