When I saw the first TV spots for Promised Land back in late November, I mostly ignored the actual content of the advertisement in favor of the text that ran right after the title. It looked like this:
That list of names got me all hot and bothered. Notoriously hit-or-miss director Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester) was back working with Matt Damon, one half of his golden boy duo, and had replaced Ben Affleck with the slightly less handsome but exponentially more charming John Krasinksi (The Office). Van Sant was also returning to the formula of letting his leading men write the screenplay, a technique which previously won Damon an Oscar for Good Will Hunting. I also recognized the “Story by” credit, Dave Eggers, as the man responsible for adapting the screenplay to my all time favorite film, Where the Wild Things Are. So it seemed from the start that I was in for a witty, meaningful, and original movie the likes of which we hadn’t seen since Clinton was in the White House and Matt Damon had a blonde-highlighted bowl cut.
Promised Land focuses on two representatives from a natural gas fracking corporation, played by Matt Damon and Frances Mcdormand, who are deployed to a poor farming town to buy the rights to drill the land one farm at a time. They run into turbulence, however, when the town science teacher brings up the possible environmental repercussions of gas fracking, and the locals decide to vote on the issue at an upcoming town hall meeting. That’s when Krasinski, an eager environmentalist, rides into town in a biodiesel truck to stir things up.
In an interview with Charlie Rose on NPR, Damon and Krasinski insisted that despite the plot, this was not a politically charged film about fracking. And they were right; they certainly try their hardest to take a neutral stance (sometimes at the cost of subtlety). Instead, the film is about pride and American identity. Damon’s character offers the poor farmers the promise of money to give up their family legacy, but he struggles with whether or not he is doing the right thing. This conflict, complemented by a satisfyingly twisty plot, make for a generally alright movie. There is something missing, however.
During the Charlie Rose interview, Matt Damon said that he and Krasinski took a lot of inspiration from the 1983 film Local Hero. That movie is one of cinema’s great enigmas; it currently holds a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but not because it is particularly spectacular. Rather, its perfect score is a result of the fact that critics couldn’t find anything overtly wrong with the film. But although Local Hero and Promised Land share a similar plot, the former stands out because of its unabashed quirkiness. The townspeople in that film have eccentricities that vary between outlandish and adorable, and that takes the film to a level of storytelling that is more of a fairy tale parable than cautionary realism.
Promised Land lacks that characteristic oddness. There are several townspeople characters featured in the film, but they are all unspectacular and devoid of personality. The filmmakers also tried incorporating a few clever running jokes and sight gags, but they all fall flat. Perhaps Damon and Krasinski were trying for authenticity, but intentional or not, the final product lacks any real cinematic charm.
The film does have its redeeming moments. I felt it in my chest when Damon’s character buys a 25¢ lemonade from a little girl, pays with a dollar bill, and tells her to keep the change. The girl holds out the coins and insists “The sign says 25¢. That means it’s 25¢.” But these sort of moments are heartbreakingly sparse in Promised Land, meaning that yet another film filled with potential will be forgotten.
At least we can always go rewatch Good Will Hunting.
Verdict: Movie Meh