Whenever Academy Award winning screenwriter Matt Damon develops a script, there's only one director he's taking it to, Gus Van Sant. The pair first matched wits with the 1998 Best Picture Nominee Good Will Hunting. In 2002 the duo teamed up for a second effort, Gerry, that turned out to be an under-seen and admirable piece of work. A decade later and Damon is at it again, partnering with actor John Krasinski and penning another screenplay. This time, the result is a highly controversial drama called Promised Land. Expecting to make his directorial debut but forced to step down, Damon went to none other than Gus Van Sant to helm the feature.
Matt Damon stars as Steve Butler, a fast-rising corporate salesman who visits a rural town facing a huge economic decline. Butler and his sales partner Sue Thomason (played by Frances McDormand) seek drilling rights from local farmers in order to drill for natural gas, a safe and clean energy source of the future. Promising lucrative returns to the entire town, the corporate team's plans are threatened when an environmentalist named Dustin Noble (played by John Krasinski) shows up to educate the locals on the dangers of such drilling (AKA "fracking").
Promised Land is an agenda-motivated drama that glimmers rather than shines. Capped off by a strong third act, director Gus Van Sant's latest project is a rewarding piece of filmmaking no matter what debatable topic serves as its primary back-story. While Krasinski and Damon demonstrate almost no difficulty in conjuring up a collection of affable characters, the writers ride the wave of an adequate opening and barely survive a lifeless mid-section to the feature. But in typical Matt Damon-style, a closing series of personal reflection and self betterment leads to a familiar, yet never diluted, finale of redemption. Even more so than the script itself, Damon's strongest collaborative efforts to the film come in the form of his perfectly executed acting chops. Although Damon's only Academy Award comes from the writing side of his career, he continually delivers strong performance after strong performance to reiterate where his greatest talents truly reside. As for his sales partner in crime, they couldn't have cast anyone better than Frances McDormand. Never overbearing or too flashy, McDormand has benefited from a lengthy career of genuine and honest portrayals. In Promised Land, she once again sticks to the game plan and gives a quietly effective performance. Beyond its talented cast and satisfying conclusion, Promised Land emerges from a weak second act with a surprising turn of events. Without this carefully calculated and imperative "twist" to the story, Promised Land would never recover from an otherwise pedestrian script.
During Gus Van Sant's newest feature, there's a pivotal moment where the audience is on the fringe of closing the door on Promised Land. While any truly "great" piece of filmmaking clearly avoids such crossroads, Damon's and Krasinski's paper-thin plot holds the movie hostage and creates a lengthy standstill that inevitably tests the patience of the audience. Caught in a downturn and desperate to go anywhere, Promised Land eventually takes a drastic 180-degree turn that sets the film on a new course and salvages the final project. Even the slightest change to this vital new direction that the feature takes could have proved fatal, but Damon and Krasinski come through when they are most needed. In addition to a mostly bland script, Promised Land becomes a combative source for political debate. While I attempt to view any film with a clean and unbiased slate, many moviegoers don't. Therefore, movie's centering around controversial issues such as fracking tend to polarize and turn off a wide spectrum of audiences. Hence, Promised Land is a faulty release that is undoubtedly open to a multitude of criticisms.
For as objective as Promised Land attempts to be, unfortunately the film is forced to take a side on the highly debated issue of fracking. However, by simply labeling Promised Land as "anti-fracking" propaganda, you're missing a more prominent message. Bigger topics such as corporate foul play and personal ethics become the resonating themes throughout the picture. No matter what side of the issue you stand on, Promised Land is a film that should be savored for its character development and gratifying resolution. We should all aim to become better people by continually doing what's right. Promised Land gives us a lead character who constantly claims "I'm not a bad guy" and, by the end of the film, he proves it. For that alone, we should all be grateful for Matt Damon, John Krasinski and Gus Van Sant's latest collaboration, Promised Land.