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The Independent Critic

Matt Damon, Frances McDormand, John Krasinski, Hal Holbrook
Gus Van Sant
Dave Eggers (Story), Matt Damon (Screenplay), John Krasinski (Screenplay)
Rated R
107 Mins.
Focus Features
The only extra material will be an Extended Scene, and a Making of Promised Land featurette. The Blu-ray/DVD Combo release will also include a digital copy of the film.

 "Promised Land" Caves In to Formulaic Sentimentality 
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From the opening shot of Gus Van Sant's Promised Land, I wanted to love the film.

The film's opening shot is amazing, and one's initial impression of the film is that this is going to be one of Van Sant's "normal" films. There's no question that I fancy myself a Van Sant devotee, and even his most experimental efforts tend to make my heart and mind go pitter-patter.

For a good majority of Promised Land, I was right there with him. The film centers around two low-level operatives from Global Gas, Steve Butler (Matt Damon) and Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand), who find themselves tasked with convincing the residents of a rural community that Global Gas's lease offers on their land are the answers to their economic prayers. All appears to be going well until a community gathering to discuss the issue goes awry after a beloved high school science teacher (Hal Holbrook) denounces the intended "fracking" as a long-term disaster not worth the temporary economic gain for the community and its residents. Bad goes to worse when an activist, Dustin Noble (John Krasinski), gets wind of the effort and lands in the community determined to block Global Gas.

Early scenes in Promised Land are formulaic yet fascinating as we're treated to what amounts to tit-for-tat community manipulation by both Butler and Noble to win the hearts, minds and lands of the residents who will eventually be voting on whether to sign the leases. For at least the first half of the film, Promised Land does an intriguingly good job at approaching both sides of the issue with quite a bit of balance.

In fact, what may be most disturbing about the early scenes in Promised Land is just how easily this community's residents have their sentiments blow back and forth dependent upon the creative winds of all the parties involved. The script, co-written by Damon and Krasinski from a story by Dave Eggers, does a tremendous job of painting neither the corporate big wigs nor the activist as angel or devil. Instead, they are human beings caught up in an issue and argument that appears to be much bigger than any of them.

The fact that Promised Land is set in a small Pennsylvania town feels authentic given that the very real and very political debate surrounding "fracking" has Pennsylvania as one of its major battlegrounds. While it may not seem realistic to have Damon's Butler and McDormand's Thomason portrayed with such a sense of normalcy, it does a terrific job of illustrating just how difficult it is when smalltown American is faced with the multi-layered and profit motivated approaches of corporate giants. Much is made of the fact that Butler is from a small town himself, but it becomes apparent rather quickly that even he is merely a pawn in the game. He's "trustworthy" because of his roots, a quality that makes it easy for him to have become a bit of a boy wonder for Global Gas with his innate ability to identify with small town folks and to get their trust and their signatures.

The exact angle that Promised Land is taking seems a bit uncertain early in the film, with both Butler and Noble having times when they seem to have the upper hand and both having obvious weaknesses that are eventually discovered by the townsfolk. It's only in the film's final 15-20 minutes that what had previously been a balanced and appealing film downward spirals into a formulaic and preachy film that comes pretty darn close to crashing the entire production.

While Promised Land ultimately proves to be just a tad disappointing given all the talent involved, it can't be totally dismissed because, well, of all the talent involved.

This is a terrific film to see the range of Damon, who manages to be both a touch smarmy and downright likable. It says quite a bit that he's able to get you to not hate Steve Butler, a man who represents a company worth billions and billions of dollars and one that is clearly not even remotely concerned about the economic challenges of rural America. The same is true for John Krasinski, who proves once again that he's far more than just a comic actor. Krasinski takes a character who should be nothing but likable and turns him into a layered young man whose own self-interest is nearly as questionable as that of Damon's Butler.

Among all the performances, however, Frances McDormand shines most brightly as the rather straightforward and decidedly apolitical Thomason, a woman who primarily sees this job as nothing more than a way to pay for her son's education. McDormand's character is the most broadly developed, and you can't help but light up every single time she comes on the screen.

Despite its disappointing closing scenes, Promised Land is a beautiful film to behold and a film that benefits greatly from Van Sant's technical eye for visual impact. Additionally, Danny Elfman's original score for the film is top notch and even as the film is downward spiraling into preachy cliche's it remains a film you can't stop watching.

It's doubtful that Damon is going to find himself with another Oscar for screenwriting (his first being for Good Will Hunting with Ben Affleck), but even with all its flaws Promised Land is an important film and a fine addition to the Van Sant filmography.

© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic