Could this hectoring liberal treatise be Gus Van Sant's worst film ever?
Gus Van Sant is no Frank Capra. So why is this once edgy filmmaker trying so hard to be? With his flaccid new melodrama Promised Land, the director known for pinballing between projects both mainstream (Good Will Hunting) and experimental (Elephant, Gerry) desperately tries to create profound human statements by haphazardly politicising the emotional consequences of recession-era malaise.
The issue of 'fracking', a term used to describe the drilling process natural gas companies rely on to extract lucrative deposits from deep in the ground, resides at the centre of the film’s ripped-from-the-headlines plot. Except this environmentally suspect practice, which does indeed have deep moral, scientific and social implications, is used only to convolute an otherwise simplistic view of class conflict and ideological resolve in modern America.
Promised Land is unabashedly a character study, but one that’s only skin deep. The rise and fall (and rise again) of ace corporate salesman Steve Butler (Matt Damon) is an all-too-familiar one. Introduced during a dialogue-heavy opening as a smooth talker tasked by a powerful natural gas company to convince small-town communities to lease their various properties for drilling, Steven brags that he is someone who can relate to his clientele because of his rural upbringing.
According to Steve, all it takes to con Red State Americans is a dash of country charm and a momentary shift in accent, because hey, they need the money. After arriving on the front lines of Main Street, these hard-working people, led by elder statesman Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook), prove much more resistant than Steve and his no-nonsense colleague Sue (Frances McDormand) expected. They throw both for a loop during the first of two highfalutin town hall meetings.
When an equally charismatic environmentalist (John Krasinski) shows up and starts planting seeds of doubt about the fracking process, Steve’s professional and ethical problems multiply exponentially. The pandering narrative grows tiresome and inert from here, offering nothing in the form of rewarding surprises and a third-act twist that feels as forced as it is ludicrous.
Even worse, Steve’s fleeting relationship with a local grade school teacher named Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt) gets pushed into the foreground at convenient times to grease his preordained transition from reptile to moral upstart. Their coupling is just one of many examples where the script, co-written by Damon and Krasinski, fails to convincingly explore dimension in potentially interesting characters.
Tiny shards of lyricism are sprinkled throughout Promised Land; the aerial bird's-eye-view shots balance beautiful squares of pastel Americana in lovely high-angle compositions. But Van Sant’s direction is mostly misguided and stale, and Damon’s horrendously inconsistent performance remains exhaustive at best. The film ultimately explores many of the same class and moral conflicts Capra addressed in his films from the '30s and '40s, namely how justice and pride battle for control inside good people making bad decisions.
But Promised Land lacks the necessary subtext to alleviate his penchant for smothering levity. It’s as if Van Sant, once a wonderfully inventive filmmaker who relished sampling fresh modes of storytelling, now feels at home with greetings-card moralising and pre-ordained epiphanies. The real mystery is why.
His patchy recent track record means expectations were low for yet another Gus Van Sant melodrama.
The worst kind of cinematic preaching.
Van Sant is no Frank Capra, so why is he trying so hard to be?