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Fracking fracture

Promised Land solidly hopeful despite gaps in script

By Philip Martin

This article was published January 4, 2013 at 2:05 a.m.


Schoolteacher Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt) shares a cocktail and a moment with gas company land man Steve Butler (Matt Damon) in Gus Van Sant’s Promised Land.

"Let some other guy be last ..."

This clip from film "Promised Land" features Matt Damon and Ken Strunk. Courtesy of Focus Features.
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— I am not one of those critics who routinely supply quotes for movie publicists for advertising purposes. But I also have a problem disappointing people, so if a publicist asks me for my opinion of a film I don’t generally tell them they’ll have to wait for my published review.

Usually I say something honestly neutral that I know they won’t use in an ad or as a cover blurb on the DVD; if I’ve got it written, I might quote from my own review.

What I told the publicist who asked me about Gus Van Sant’s Promised Land was that it “was better than Good Will Hunting,”Van Sant’s 1997 film that also starred Matt Damon and earned screenwriters Damon and Ben Affleck a Best Screenplay Oscar.

And it is. It’s better than Finding Forrester and I’d even venture that it’s better than Gerry, which would make it the finest Damon-Van Sant collaboration yet. Still, it’s not in the first rank of Van Sant films, and it might be interesting to consider why.

Promised Land looks great - it’s a green humming thing, fairly throbbing with cinematographer Linus Sandgren’s palette of Andrew Wyeth earth tones, and populated by smart actors who make their characters feel like real people, even when the script makes them perform inanities. With first-class production values and subtle performances, it’s the sort of movie that disguises its rickety and sometimes obvious script rather well.

That script was written by Damon and his co-star John Krasinski, and Damon originally planned to make the project his directorial debut. Damon called in Van Sant when he realized he wasn’t able to make the time commitment.

And while Van Sant’s eye and sense of poetry no doubt elevate what’s essentially an updated Frank Capra story, Promised Land might have been a better film had Damon waited until he had time to direct it himself, for in the interval he and Krasinski might have taken a couple of more passes at the script, smoothing out some of the rough patches and deepening the roles of the female characters (Frances McDormand adds ballast just by being there, but her character should have taken over in the third act) and maybe rethinking the twist that nearly ruins the movie.

Still, there’s a lot to like about Promised Land. Damon is playing the bad guy here, a corporate stooge named Steve Butler who travels rural America securing drilling rights for a natural gas company. Butler believes he’s offering the yokels a chance for a better life, because he watched his own small-town Iowa farming community die. Still, he’s determined to get the rights as cheaply and quickly as possible. His success has him primed for promotion - despite his humble manner, Butler is a shark.

His partner, Sue (McDormand), is equally competent, though not necessarily a true believer. She’s a pragmatic single mom determined to provide for her son (with whom she Skypes nightly).

Neither Butler nor Sue seem much bothered by their company’s - Global Crosspower Solutions - means of retrieving gas from oil shale: hydraulic fracturing, in the vernacular, “fracking.” But when they arrive in the small town of McKinley (the film was shot in Pennsylvania, but the location of the town is intentionally left vague, presumably to emphasize its anywhereness), they find opposition in the form of a commanding old schoolteacher, Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook), and, a little later, a hotshot environmentalist (Krasinski) who goes by “Dustin Noble” (a name we suspect even Mr. Dickens might find a little too on-the-nose).

Soon, Butler and Noble are competing, not only for the hearts and minds of the good people of McKinley - who are, by and large, accorded an uncommon dignity by the filmmakers (the exception being Lucas Black’s Corvette mad townie) - but for the affections of golden-hearted schoolmarm Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt).

Noble is Butler’s equal in charm and guile, and just like Butler, he’s willing to bend the truth to his own specifications. If only the script hadn’t pushed so hard, we might have had a genuinely intriguing moral exploration.

Still, Promised Land mostly works as entertainment, as while it has a point of view it’s not the anti-fracking screed its political enemies proclaim (and perhaps wish) it to be. Though Krasinski’s protestations that the script was originally about “wind power” seem disingenuous, you don’t feel preached at by the movie.

And I’m inclined to give it a break - it’s two-thirds excellent, one-third ordinary, but any movie that gives actors like Tim Guinee and Titus Welliver their own moments of grace will get a break from me.

And it’s still better than Good Will Hunting.

Promised Land 87 Cast: Matt Damon, John Krasinski, Frances McDormand, Rosemarie DeWitt, Scoot McNairy, Titus Welliver, Tim Guinee, Lucas Black, Hal Holbrook Director: Gus Van Sant Rating: R, for language Running time: 106 minutes

MovieStyle, Pages 29 on 01/04/2013

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