Thursday, December 27, 2012
Damon plays Steve Butler, a mid-level traveling salesman for a natural gas company. In toe with his ball-busting partner Sue (Frances McDormand, one of America's best at selling even the most hokum of dialogue), they go from small farm town to the next leasing properties in order to drill, exciting poorer citizens with hopes of a large payday. Steve, a small town farm boy in his youth, speaks plainly and directly, priding himself with straightforward honesty and charm, without big city tricks or bells and whistles. He's such a good salesman, he believes his pitch himself and that he's a helpful ambassador to struggling, disenfranchised Americans. The dangers, and thus the message, of Promised Land, gets out of the way fairly early on-- that with the process of the drilling, called "fracking"-- a potentially dangerous and controversial environmental issue. Steve, no stranger to semantics, holds his ground and firmly believes in the honesty and faith of not just what he's selling, but the corporate world larger than him. That notion is the one major miss of Promised Land, where Steve's naivete, essential for coaxing the drama and in moving the character and the plot forward. Damon seems to savvy for that, but like any good salesman, spins it as well as one can, retaining he's easy-going, nice guy persona. Steve, himself, as he begins to question, even reminds himself, "I'm the good guy."
As the town is divided over what direction they should take-- Hal Holbrook plays an esteemed small town gentry who fears what his community will come to if too many people agree to drilling-- and decides to hold a formal vote. Steve and Sue become nervous upon the arrival of an environmental activist (played by Krasinski) who stirs trouble by canvassing the town with slogans and a pinched bravado. At this point in the film, the bigger dramatic question looms...could Matt Damon be playing the villain here? Of course not, he, as well as the film keep reminding us, that "he's a good guy," and Krasinski's environ-douche Dustin is such a cad from the onset, that just can't be possible. Never mind all of that, however, for the plainly stated virtues of Promised Land, which does a decent enough job of taking a snapshot of a topical subject matter that isn't as viably discussed as much as it should, and, better yet, for keeping it at arms length as to not read as didactic as it surely could have. Cynically, the film can be read as a pet project, write off for movie stars in pursuit of charity work, or a film that will, no doubt, further push the well-greased argument that the media is speared by the liberal elite. Van Sant debunks that with a small and earthy straightforwardness, so much so, that even the climatic Capra moment where our hero does the noble thing and the emotional violins strum along, it registers with the simplest of beats.
But that's also a bit of a shortcoming as the tiny play is at times so muted it barely registers a pulse. A grating subplot where Steve and Dustin pine for a local school teacher (Rosemarie DeWitt) further pulls the film away; a shame considering the warmth a performer like DeWitt imbues is one that the film could have taken advantage of wisely had the stridency of formula not stood in the way. Similarly, most of the characters outside of Steve and Sue reads far too easily and, perhaps even a tad offensive. Most residents come off as ignorant rubes, following like cattle to whomever has the fanciest speak, and others including the character portrayed by Holbrook as mere ciphers for the films messaging. While the film is nearly defiant in it's lack of vanity, Promised Land still adheres to the staples of the message picture, one that even the even the finest messages can't quite hurdle.
The presence of Matt Damon, as guide, advocate and movie star, is likely the only legitimate reason a film like this could have gotten off the ground, and how it could be given an Oscar-qualifying release by Focus Features, and why, I have little doubt, anyone will turn up to actually watch it to begin with. He sells well and earnestly with integrity and quiet compassion. And while Damon may well be our generations Jimmy Stewart, there's really no denying that Steve Butler will come any near Mr. Smith in the pantheon of American cinemas great nice guys. B-