Berlin Film Festival review: Promised Land starring Matt Damon is too dry and sober

This socially conscious movie is ultimately undermined by absurd contrivances

Gus Van Sant’s Promised Land is an old fashioned blue collar drama set in rural Pennsylvania.

Based on a story by novelist Dave Eggers, the film is a polemic against “fracking” (the controversial mining technique) but its eco-arguments are couched in deliberately low key and folksy style. Van Sant’s pared down storytelling is effective and initially moving, even if the film is ultimately undermined by its absurd final reel contrivances.

Matt Damon (back with the director who helped make his name in Good Will Hunting) plays Steve Butler, a young salesman for a big, bad energy company called Global.

He and his colleague Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand in a largely thankless role) turn up in the sleepy, depressed farming town McKinley. They offer the townsfolk small fortunes for their land, which they want to drill. They reassure these townsfolk that there are no side effects. If they sell up to Global, they will be able to pay their bills, improve their schools and afford their kids’ college fees.

Of course, the reality isn’t nearly as rosy as Global pretends.

The casting is very sly. Damon is in his American everyman mode as Butler. He is projects integrity and decency, even if he is the representative of the huge corporation that is threatening to poison the land.

Pitted against Damon’s Butler is a high school science teacher (Hal Holbrook), a patrician who warns that “fracking” might not be as safe and harmless as Global suggests and insists the town puts the issues to a vote.

Promised Land may be a “message” movie but it isn’t too strident or preachy. The screenplay (co-written by Damon) tries its best to create involving drama around Butler’s relationships with the townsfolk. He is drawn to a pretty and irreverent school teacher (Rosemary DeWitt), with whom he gets monstrously drunk.

Just when Butler and Thomason seem to have won the town over, a freewheeling, hippy environmental activist (John Krasinski) arrives and begins to campaign against them. He shows the townsfolk images of poisoned livestock and tells heartrending stories about the effects of “fracking” on his own family.

The idea behind Promised Land was presumably to engage audiences who would have been alienated by an earnest documentary on the same subject. Van Sant and his collaborators go out of their way not to be overly didactic. Sadly, though, longer the film progresses, though, the more contrived it becomes.

If Promised Land had been made in an earlier era in Hollywood history, you could imagine Gary Cooper or James Stewart playing Matt Damon’s role, perhaps with a socially conscious director like Frank Capra or John Ford directing. Such filmmakers wouldn’t have been embarrassed about using screwball comedy conventions or lurching toward melodrama. Unfortunately, for all his craftsmanship, Van Sant deals with his material here in a way that is ultimately just a little too dry and sober.

We know all along that Damon will get to give his big monologue and that the arguments against “fracking” will eventually hold sway. The disappointment is that the very obvious finale is reached in such a clumsy way.

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