“I’m not a bad guy” is proclaimed by Steve Butler (Matt Damon) ad nauseum to opposition in a small rural town. Along with his partner (Frances McDormand), the duo attempt to buy land in the area as a means to begin drilling for natural gas. What follows is a fairly typical, though surprisingly pleasant, deconstruction of corporate intrusion on rural life and the subsequent environmental impact that it may have. Aside from a severely miscalculated final act, the picture works effectively as a procedural, whereupon opposition is raised on the potential harm of fracking in the area. But what makes Promised Land particularly effective is how it, at least initially, legitimizes the moral compass of corporate figures who attempt to buy land in the area with flagrant disregard of its consequences.
Written by Dave Eggers, Matt Damon, and John Krasinski (who also has a crucial role in the film), Promised Land has an immediate sense of passion in its construction. In many ways, the picture feels very American, deriving much of its thematic undertones from feelings of nostalgia for a lost time. Hell, it’s named after a Bruce Springsteen song and even features a karaoke scene involving one of his tracks. The whole film can be best equated to a Springsteen song – springy, passionate, though not particularly introspective. There’s passion to Promised Land’s rhetoric and there’s even some well-constructed narrative elements that work fluidly within the film’s context – a tangent romantic component involving Matt Damon and Rosemarie DeWitt has a particular charm to it.
But a crucial final act dislodges much of Promised Land’s admirable efforts, whereupon the picture hemorrhages corporate demonization. While the film’s final thoughts align with my own political leanings, the juxtaposition in tone and theme is particularly jarring. For a film that so firmly establishes opposing sides, the way the picture attempts to reconcile the two opposing viewpoints never feels genuine.
Despite its problematic sense of closure, Promised Land benefits from Damon’s performance and Van Sant’s solid, if not particularly memorable, direction. When watching the film, I immediately recalled the critical reaction to George Clooney’s The Ides of March – a film that was somewhat admonished for reverberating known aspects of United States politics. Promised Land also very much felt like a retread, particularly when taking into consideration Josh Fox’ 2010 documentary, Gasland. Promised Land may not posit new questions on the concerns associated with fracking, but it leverages that weakness for broader cinematic appeal. The issue remains of great social, political and environmental concern, with Van Sant and Damon not quite covering the vastness of its impact.