The last time Gus van Sant and Matt Damon worked together on a film, they produced Good Will Hunting. Hunting became a huge splash, won a couple of Oscars, ran through a gauntlet of cruel backlash haterism and has now settled into a place in cinematic history that it truly earned: a sentimental, albeit heartfelt melodrama that combined fantastic performances and a smart script to tell a really effective story. Good Will Hunting‘s meteoric rise still has many detractors, but I love it. So that being said, Damon’s reunion with van Sant in this latest movie, Promised Land really peaked my interest. This time, instead of writing with hometown friend Ben Affleck, Damon penned the script with another popular actor, John Krasinski. The result is a film that falls short of the greatness of Hunting but is still pretty damn good.
The original script was written by Dave Eggers – an accomplished literary figure whose venture into screenwriting has been a bit uneven (Away We Go was a bit too aloof and Where The Wild Things Are never quite got its footing – but both had very strong moments). I can only imagine that the retouching that Damon and Krasinski gave Eggers’ proof lead to a much more polished product, as the greatest strength of Promised Land is its astonishingly tight screenplay, which knows enough about each of its characters to give them a proper arc that’s both believable and effective while also bringing enough surprise to keep us on our toes. Considering the subject matter (natural gas companies mining farming towns for resources), its almost impossible for the story not to turn toward the propaganda route, touting America’s heartland as the true source of goodness (so to speak), but the evolution of those feelings in Promised Land might be a little less myopic than you’d expect.
Damon plays Steven Butler, a rising star salesman for a major natural gas corporation named Global Industries. Steve and his traveling partner, Sue (Frances McDormand), are adept at arriving at small farming towns and selling the residents at very low prices. How is Steve so good at this? He explains early in the film: he himself is from a small farming town in Iowa. He knows quite a bit about the farming lifestyle and what those types of people react to. When farmers speak with him, it’s almost as if they are speaking to one of their own. Except that Steven’s motives are based in a growing resentment of his background. He sees American farmlands as a way of the past and natural gas resources is the only way to help these farmers move into the real world. He and Thomas Jefferson would not have gotten along.
Steven and Sue are sent to a rural town a few hours out of the city (both the town and the city are never mentioned by name, which is an interesting/puzzling choice) to “close” the first of many nearby towns. This is supposed to be the first domino and it should be quick and painless – in and out in a few days like nothing. And it certainly seems that way early on. The town’s mayor seems to be in favor of anything that has to do with lining his pockets, and the town’s farmers, devastated by the recent economy, are desperate enough to grab any money that might be thrown at them. But not everyone in the town is happy about it and when the mayor sets up a public announcement to introduce Global’s natural gas drilling, its met with confrontation from the local science teacher, Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook). Yates, a learned former MIT graduate, presents the environmental dangers of drilling for natural gas. Suddenly, the decision to let Global drill is sent to a vote three weeks away, and the two-day, in-and-out process that Sue and Steven had planned becomes more problematic.
Sue and Steven are met with even more resistance in the form of an environmental activist named Dustin Noble (Krasinski), who works for a group named Athena who specialize in muckraking. Dustin quickly creates a groundswell amongst the people against Steven and Global. Suddenly, the easy job turns into an uphill battle that threatens to swallow Steven and Sue whole. Amidst all the craziness is a relationship Steven develops with a schoolteacher named Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt), whose own small farm is a family heirloom that she couldn’t help but maintain on her own after her parents passed away. I think Promised Land could have easily placed itself atop a very preachy, Al Gore-shaped soapbox, but it does a very smart thing instead: it focuses itself on the central conflict through the characters and how they react to the peaks and valleys of this story.
Gus van Sant is a filmmaker always transitioning from his brisk, independent work (My Own Private Idaho, Elephant) and his more commercial, accesible films (Good Will Hunting, Milk). One gets the sense that his smaller-budget projects are the ones closer to his heart, but it’s his bigger films that have been more successful and, quite frankly, tend to be the better films. Promised Land further cements his reputation as a liberal-agenda, veiled metaphor kind of filmmaker, but he understands what Damon and Krasinski’s script needs and provides it amicably. Van Sant is probably one of the most consistent directors in the world at staying out of the way, while always making sure his films are visually sharp and stay away from the monotonous plodding that comes with those kinds of directors. Promised Land is no exception.
The person who really gets to shine here is Damon. There may not be an American movie star that picks his roles better. This is an actor that so very much understands his strengths and weaknesses (of which he has very few), which allows him to skate through roles as varied as ones in The Talented Mr. Ripley and The Informant!. Promised Land is far from a career best, but really another in a string in brilliantly constructed performances that really endear a character to an audience. Steven Butler is a good, well-meaning man but he’s a salesman at heart with a hidden mean streak that shows itself when he’s close to the finish line. He’s at one point warm and gentle, and other times cold and calculating. He’s good at selling what he sells because he really believes in it, but also because he doesn’t believe these farmers can manage anything better. His realization of his own self-resentment marks the film’s major arc – and it’s a good one.
The film has an impressive supporting cast as well. Frances McDormand, always a great performer, plays Steven’s partner with a great stock of maternal, no-nonsense co-piloting that never makes her seem like a stock character. Global is a job for her to support her son – consequences be damned. DeWitt, as the main love interest, probably has more screen time than the importance of her character merits, but she supplies a nice romantic subplot that keeps the film from becoming bogged down in environmental minutia. Holbrook does a great deal in very little time, imbuing wisdom on the screen just by being there – his specialty. Krasinski, playing the main nemesis to Steven’s cause, plays Dustin not as a holier-than-thou nature man, but as a different kind of salesman, and his character reveals to be much more interesting as the film goes forward.
The film opted for a limited December 28th release, which I imagine was for awards posturing, but no one really bought in. I imagine the somewhat controversial subject matter led people away from the theater. To be honest, there are times when the film seems to be actively avoiding taking an explicit stance, though I imagine supporters of natural gas will hate the movie and haters of “fracking” will love it. Despite the obligatory political tightrope walking and one metaphor toward the end that singed my brain with obviousness, this is a very solid film. If more people had been given the chance to see this in 2012, I believe Damon and Krasinki’s drum-tight screenplay could be up for an Oscar right now. Funny how that works. But whatever the stance you might think Promised Land has, I found the performances truly great and that’s worth watching in my book.
Directed by Gus Van Sant