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.
Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challengeTV
Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated
tvAn expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle
artLee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 The BBC has just done more to eradicate ‘terrorism’ than all our wars since 9/11
- 2 Dog thinks owner is drowning in lake, dives in and tries to pull him out
- 3 Saudi preacher who 'raped and tortured' his five -year-old daughter to death is released after paying 'blood money'
- 4 Chilling drone footage captures Auschwitz ahead of 70th anniversary of liberation
- 5 Phil Neville backtracks on Tomas Rosicky 'I'd smash him' comments from Match of the Day 2
Heavy metal producer's corpse to be mutilated by models as per his dying wish
Ed Sheeran texts Noel Gallagher to offer him tickets after that Wembley Stadium rant
Sia apologises for 'Elastic Heart' music video that sees Shia LaBeouf wrestle 12-year-old Maddie Ziegler
Mortdecai becomes Johnny Depp's fifth consecutive box office bomb
Last Tango in Halifax, review: Can we ever really move on from Kate?
'We would evict Queen from Buckingham Palace and allocate her council house,' say Greens
French court convicts three over homophobic tweets, in case hailed as a 'significant victory' by LGBT rights campaigners
Greece elections: Syriza and EU on collision course after election win for left-wing party
British Muslim school children suffering a backlash of abuse following Paris attacks
Islamic history is full of free thinkers - but recent attempts to suppress critical thought are verging on the absurd
Leaked documents show Ukip leaders approve NHS privatisation once it becomes more 'acceptable to the electorate'