Magazine article Screen International

Promised Land

Magazine article Screen International

Promised Land

Article excerpt

Dir: Gus Van Sant. US. 2012. 106mins

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. Representing a re-teaming of director Gus Van Sant and star/co-writer Matt Damon, the film, which looks at a energy company's attempts to obtain drilling rights in a small town, will probably play best with those invested in the script's political and social issues, while others may simply dismiss this as a well-meaning, sometimes graceful message movie.

Van Sant manages to capture the slow, distinctive rhythms of small-town life, commendably refusing to turn McKinley into a community of dumb yokels or founts of universal truths.

Focus Features will release Promised Land at the end of December in a limited run for awards consideration before the movie goes wide January 4 of next year. The film has several saleable elements, including Damon's lead performance, but it may draw more headlines because the story touches on the rise of "fracking," a controversial method of extracting natural gas from underneath the ground that has been promoted as a way to wean Americans off their dependence on foreign oil, no matter the environmental and health risks that may come as a result.

While Promised Land isn't a thriller, it may appeal to the same adult crowds that enjoyed serious grownup entertainments like Syriana, Traffic and Michael Clayton. Still, this looks like only a modest commercial prospect that will need strong reviews and awards play to help raise its profile.

The film stars Damon as Steve Butler, a salesman for a large energy company called Global. Growing up in a small town himself, Steve is superb at convincing quiet rural communities to sell their drilling rights to Global, promising an economic windfall that will help save their struggling farms and underfunded schools. But when he and his sales partner Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand) step foot in McKinley, the townspeople, led by a well-informed high school teacher (Hal Holbrook), initially resist Global's advances, worried by reports that fracking can contaminate groundwater and severely affect public health. The residents decide to vote in three weeks on the proposal, which forces Steve to contend with Dustin Noble (John Krasinski), an environmental activist who comes into town to warn McKinley about the dangers of fracking.

Promised Land's early reels are its strongest, as we are introduced to the confident, savvy Steve, a man who doesn't feel ethically conflicted about selling small communities similar to the one where he was raised on a process that may be harmful to them. (In a nice touch, it's not initially clear if he simply doesn't believe the myriad reports on fracking's side effects or that he's such a good salesman that he knows how to hide any sense of doubt.) Damon, who wrote the script with Krasinski, proves to be well-suited to play Steve, imbuing the character with a genuineness that makes his mission all the more compelling: Steve truly believes that the money that will come from fracking will fortify these impoverished towns that have been decimated by globalisation and a shrinking need for blue-collar jobs. …

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