Promised Land

Cast:
Matt Damon as Steve Butler
Rosemarie DeWitt as Alice
Frances McDormand as Sue Thomason
John Krasinski as Dustin Noble
Lucas Black as Paul Geary
Scoot McNairy as Jeff Dennon
Hal Holbrook as Frank Yates
Titus Welliver as Rob
Tim Guinee as Drew
Terry Kinney as David Stonehill
Sara Lindsey as Claire Allen
Johnny Cicco as Donny
Lennon Wynn as Lemonade girl
Kristin Slaysman as Gwen
Rosemary Howard as McKinley High Spanish Teacher
John W. Iwanonkiw as Officer Breedlove
Joe Coyle as Richard Downey

Directed by Gus Van Sant

Story:
Steve Butler (Matt Damon) has been sent by his employer Global to convince a small town community to lease their land for the fracking of natural gas, going door-to-door with his seasoned partner Sue (Frances McDormand). Problems arise when an ambitious environmentalist named Dustin (John Krasinski) comes to town and starts convincing the locals that Global’s plans risks contaminating their water supply.

Analysis:
Despite the early buzz otherwise, one doesn’t have to know anything about “fracking,” the method of producing natural gas underground, to appreciate “Promised Land” which uses that environmental issue as a backdrop to tell a human story rather than being the preachy environmental film some might be expecting. Co-written by John Krasinski and Matt Damon, it was at one point going to be Damon’s directorial debut, but instead he’s reteamed with “Good Will Hunting” director Gus Van Sant for a film that at least as it begins feels like one cut from the same mold.

Damon’s Steve Butler is a good guy working in a bad business, basically a salesman who tells the simple small town folk whatever they need to hear in order to lease their land for Global to mine natural gas from below their farms. Most of them have hit hard times and are desperate for money making them easy marks for Global. Things are going well until an environmentalist named Dustin (Krasinski) shows up in town with stories of his own Nebraska farm going into foreclosure after Global gave them the same deal. Suddenly Steve and Sue are facing a much bigger obstacle as Dustin starts to win the townpeople over with heavy lobbying and posting “Global Go Home” signs everywhere. They also to have to contend with Frank Yates, the local science teacher played by Hal Holbrook, who has done his own research into the after-effects of fracking.

There’s something about Damon’s surprisingly subdued performance that immediately pulls you into his character’s orbit so you’re immediately on his side even once you realize what he’s selling could in fact ruin these people’s lives. In that way, it’s a similar role to the ones we’ve seen George Clooney pull off in movies like “Up in the Air” and “Michael Clayton” where you find yourself rooting for someone who isn’t exactly doing the best thing possible for those he’s pretending to help.

Frances McDormand is very funny as his widened partner, creating a character that few other actors could pull off and making the most out of every scene, her fun interplay with Damon really showing off the contrast between their different approaches to the job. Krasinski’s own performance is not one to be overlooked, because his charming and fresh-faced young environmental has an underlying darkness to his approach that makes you believe he’ll do anything to turn the townfolk against Steve and Sue. His character adds to the film’s grey area where you often find yourself questioning your own ideals even as the townspeople need to decide who to back.

One of Steve’s more pleasant encounters is with a local schoolteacher named Alice, played by Rosemarie DeWitt, looking younger and bubblier than ever. Her character is also given some tough decisions to make, but her more playful moments with Damon help round out and balance the film’s tone. DeWitt’s casting is further proof of the amazing talent pool Damon and Krasinski were able to assemble based on their script, and while Holbrook certainly has a strong presence during his scenes, every single character feels like a real person and they have something to contribute something to the overall story.

There are more than a few surprising turns in the story that change the relationships between the various characters, but really everything about this movie is likely to take you by surprise, from the quality of Damon and Krasinski’s writing–it’s probably one of the best original screenplays this year–to the way Van Sant directs with a subtle panache. From sweeping aerial shots of the farmlands to quieter dialogue scenes, Van Sant finds a way to make a visually interesting film without it ever getting in the way of the storytelling, using pleasant folky tunes to help set the tone rather than going for a more traditional score, although there is some underlying music mixed so low it effectively creates tension without making its presence too flagrant.

The Bottom Line:
“Promised Land” is a small film about a big topic, one that works surprisingly well at getting a message across without hitting the audience over the head with it. The refreshingly simple storytelling and authentic small town feel makes it a very special film indeed.

Promised Land opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, December 28 and wide on January 4.

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