When he’s not being overly experimental with his stories, there’s no amount of heart that director Gus Van Sant can’t deliver. He’s proven such abilities time and time again with films like Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester and most recently with the biopic Milk. Van Sant has never been bad at finding the humanity in his stories, so it shouldn’t surprise that his latest team-up with Matt Damon finds plenty of humanity and heart as well. And it’s not just a matter of being set inside the economically ravaged American heartland, where such stories litter the once flourishing agricultural landscape. With Promised Land, Van Sant once again finds his safe zone. And when combined with a cast of seasoned veterans, he also finds himself the director of yet another engaging human story.
Said story revolves around the work of Steve Butler (Matt Damon) and Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand), two land buying agents for a global company interested in taking advantages of the natural gas resources below a rural town. The play is simple: they stop at the one-horse town’s local gas and grocery, buy some flannel shirts and make their way from door to door, buying the rights to the local farmlands with a promise to deliver the locals from the edge of poverty. And Steve is great at his job. He’s not your average suit. A kid from a small town himself, still wearing his grandfather’s work boots, he’s used his down to Earth persona to earn himself a shot at a very big promotion. All he needs to do is close the deal on one last town.
This is where things get hard. And for the film itself, this is where things get interesting. Steve runs up against opposition from a well-respected school teacher played by Hal Holbrook and a mysterious environmental activist played by John Krasinski. It all adds up to a bigger fight than Steve and Sue expected, and a longer stay in Farmsville, USA than either of them would have liked.
While the core of the Participant Media funded movie revolves around the politics of the natural gas business – which, as it turns out, involves a lot of money to be made but also includes a method called “fracking” that is potentially very harmful to the environment – it’s really the story of a man trying to decide where he stands. When we meet Damon’s Steve, he seems sure of everything that he’s doing. He’s helping these people find a better life in a world that is no longer driven by individual farmers. As he progresses through his battle, we see his connection with the community grow – especially with regard to a local school teacher named Alice, as played by the ever lovely Rosemarie Dewitt. To Damon’s credit, he walks the line between competitive corporate salesman and grounded man of reason well. Steve isn’t just a man trying to get signatures, he’s a believer. And when those beliefs are tested, we see him to be a layered character that we’re rooting for, even if we’re not sure he’s doing the right thing. It’s a journey that we, the audience, take along with him.
Much of the film’s success is derived from its exceptional cast. Frances McDormand is a great sidekick for Steve, the one thing that brings him back to the task at hand as he begins to more closely connect with the community. She’s a hardcore corporate operative just trying to get the job done and get out. Rosemarie Dewitt and Hal Holbrook are great as well. Salt of the Earth performances that effuse the subtle differences that a generation can make. Even John Krasinski, who co-wrote the film with Damon based on a story by Dave Eggers, provides a great deal of charm as Steve’s environmental activist adversary. Overall, it’s perhaps one of the best ensembles we’ve seen all year. All the way down to the most supporting of characters, Promised Land’s authenticity is in its people.
It’s only major issue is that like many a Participant-produced movie, it can’t resist the urge to get preachy. Despite the quality of the journey and the evolution of Steve’s character, the end-game for him can be seen on the horizon from the film’s first act. It’s still a satisfying end, but even the film’s bigger dramatic turns lack the punch for which they so desperately aspire. It’s just that kind of safe, simple story, elevated by quality performances and a lens from Van Sant that shows off the majesty of the American midwest. As a credit to the director and his top-notch collaborators, Promised Land is one of those rare “message movies” that first tells us a great story with great performances, then alerts us to its message. And for that, it’s worth a look.
The Upside: Damon, McDormand, Holbrook, DeWitt and Krasinski are all bringing their a-game in an effort to bring this one to life. And Gus Van Sant delivers it all with a sense of reverence for the story’s subjects.
The Downside: Like any “message movie,” it has its preachy monologue. And there’s a bit of formula to the themes of corporate greed and plunder. But there’s also a great deal of authenticity to it, as well. Especially in the characters that inhabit this tale.
On the Side: This film was originally set to be Matt Damon’s directorial debut, but timing forced him to step away from the director’s chair and allow Gus Van Sant to step in.