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Promised Land (Focus Features, R)

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promised sqMaybe the real culprit here is that this film was made by a lot of talented people who are a little too earnest, and no one was around to keep them in check.

 

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Here is me, 20 minutes into the new Gus Van Sant film Promised Land: “This is pretty good!” Now here’s me, 60 minutes in: “This is heavy-handed, but still pretty good!” Finally, here’s me during the end credits of Promised Land: “That was just heavy-handed!”

Not to ruin the surprise, Promised Land, co-written by stars Matt Damon and John Krasinski (much like the way Good Will Hunting was co-written by and starred Damon and Ben Affleck, and was also directed by Van Sant), is heavy-handed as fuck. It’s a story that tries to humanize the current debate about fracking—a noble cause indeed, and one that, politically speaking, I am against, as is the movie. What’s more, I like its cast and Van Sant; it seems like a political movie that I agree with politically made by a team of artists I have a lot of respect for would be a movie that I would like, but nope. Promised Land, in the end, is something close to unbelievably bad. I can’t imagine how someone who disagrees with it politically and/or hates Matt Damon and his crew would feel about it.

To be specific, what goes on here is that Damon plays Steve Butler, a corporate pawn with a heart of gold, who goes to rural American towns to sell the presumed uneducated locals on the idea of allowing the natural gas company he represents to burrow through their property to get at the shale deposits, for money, of course. He sells it as if it’s the second coming of the oil boom (or maybe even the gold rush), and the towns he goes to, often down on their luck in the bad economy, are all too willing to let his company at their land.

The meat of Promised Land takes place in a town called McKinley, where Steve is joined by the less likeable Sue (Frances McDormand) to try to sell the town on fracking. However, given that this is a film and it needs some conflict to keep it chugging along, he meets some opposition in a retired, very well-informed teacher named Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook); he also meets a love interest in the form of cute teacher Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt). Later, as things start heating up, he’s annoyed to find an environmental agency has sent a representative, Dustin Noble (Krasinski, whose character was married to DeWitt’s in last year’s much better and hugely underseen Nobody Walks), to try to make Steve look like a liar and an ass. And to try to steal Alice away from him, because like most small towns in movies, McKinley only has one pretty girl.

I’d have to get too deeply into the climax of the film to reveal just how over-the-top heavy-handed this movie gets, so as much as I’d like to ruin it for everyone, I’ll restrain myself and just hope that you take my word for it that it isn’t well done at all. I’m not sure just who to lay the blame with—Krasinski’s no Ben Affleck (John’s only previous screenwriting credit was the film adaptation of David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, which was serviceable but not particularly memorable), and maybe he’s making too much of a play here to make the leap from the small screen to the big one, now that The Office is pooping out. The story for the film is actually credited to Dave Eggers, another artist of whom I’m a big fan, but he has a history of being fairly heavy-handed himself. 

Maybe the real culprit here is that this film was made by a lot of talented people who are a little too earnest, and no one was around to keep them in check. So, in the end, this is one of those movies that’s kind of worse for the fact that it seems like it could have been good—it’s much easier to get pissed off at a film that had promise and failed than it is with a film that never had promise in the first place. | Pete Timmermann

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