By Anne Thompson and Beth Hanna | Thompson on Hollywood December 5, 2012 at 3:40PM
"Promised Land" is Matt Damon's third teaming with director Gus Van Sant, who jumped into directing the film at the last minute after Damon decided he couldn't direct the film that he wrote with John Krasinski, who also stars. We know that Van Sant is a capable director--nothing is wrong with his handling of this material. The fault lies in the script, which is well-intentioned with a strong anti-fracking message.
In this kind of movie, the characters have arguments with each other laying out the film's political positions. This becomes both expositional and confounding, as Damon plays yet another everyman doofus (at least he was playing for comedy in Steven Soderbergh's "The Informant" and "Oceans Eleven" films) who thinks he knows what he's doing but doesn't. He's supposed to raise his consciousness over the course of the film.
Both Frances McDormand and Rosemary DeWitt come out better in this film than their male costars. Of the Oscar-winning "Good Will Hunting" screenwriting duo, I'm beginning to think that Damon is the better actor and Ben Affleck the better writer. While the film landed in the National Board of Review's Top Ten, it's unlikely to be an Oscar contender.
Not surprisingly, so far the fracking drama has divided the critics. While it has heart, the environmental message lacks subtlety to the point that it unhinges the film's good qualities. Review roundup below.
A social-issue drama handled in a very human way, Promised Land presents its environmental concerns in a clear, upfront manner but hits some narrative and character bumps in the second half that weaken the impact of this fundamentally gentle, sympathetic work. Collaborating on a screenplay for director Gus Van Sant for the third time, after Good Will Hunting and Gerry, Matt Damon stars as a natural gas company rep who encounters more resistance than he bargained for when trying to buy up drilling rights on struggling farmers' land. This is something of a Frank Capra story preoccupied with the idea of what the United States used to be or is supposed to be, but the film isn't quite rich or full-bodied enough to entirely pay off.
At its best, Gus Van Sant's "Promised Land" channels environmental politics into an agreeable drama about small town America facing down the forces of capitalist greed. In lesser moments it trumpets that tension with a complete disregard for the powers of subtlety... While the stakes are clearly drawn, with the potential of hydraulic fracturing to dilute the local water supply placed front and center, "Promised Land" can't help but preach its cause in obvious ways that continually hold back an otherwise well-acted, swiftly paced drama.
A quietly absorbing if finally somewhat dubious drama about an unlikely anti-corporate crusader, "Promised Land" uses a familiar story arc to decry corruption in the energy industry, specifically the controversial natural-gas drilling technique known as "fracking." Yet the subtler, more resonant warning sounded by Gus Van Sant's latest picture lies in its mournful portrait of an economically depressed farming community, evoking an imperiled way of American life in microcosm. Although too dramatically underpowered to achieve more than modest commercial impact, this well-acted, minor-key passion project for star-producer-scribe Matt Damon could parlay heated op-ed coverage into a respectable arthouse showing.
A timely, thoughtful character drama that eventually turns dispiritingly more predictable and simplistic, Promised Land grapples with important questions about corporate greed, the power of communities and moral responsibility, but its genuine concern for these topics only makes the film’s uninspired storytelling choices all the more frustrating.