Somewhere within the screenplay of the modern Middle American drama Promised Land from actor-writers Matt Damon and John Krasinski there’s a very well intentioned and surprisingly emotional piece of work that comes somewhat undone by the need to create a grandstanding tone that undermines an otherwise solid bit of post-Capra and post-economic downturn entertainment. It’s not that this film that marries the personal, the environmental, and the economic doesn’t know what it’s talking about. It’s that it wants to do it in only the most basic of terms, leading the whole endeavour to feel a bit dumbed down and blunted after an initially sharp set-up.
Natural Gas company shill Steve Butler (Damon) and his partner Sue (Frances McDormand) have been brought to the small Midwestern faming hamlet of McKinley to try and sweet talk landowners into letting them do some fracking on their property for the chance at multi-million dollar windfalls. Their previously successful ways run aground here thanks to a local science teacher (Hal Holbrook) whose smarter than he lets on and by the arrival of a young environmental idealist (Krasinski) that’s determined to make their lives a living hell.
Reteaming with Good Will Hunting director Gus Van Sant (who’s sadly not much of an entity here and more of a hired gun), Damon and Kransinski (working from a story by David Eggers) do a nice enough job of making Steve and Sue likable characters that work within a morally suspect world that cares more about the bottom line than the well being of others. Damon’s Steve especially has to keep reminding to himself that he isn’t evil by always premptively saying that he’s not a bad guy before people can even get mad at him. The screenplay doesn’t hide where its core beliefs truly lie, but it humanizes the fact that everyone needs a job they can excel at in this particularly rocky economic climate. These two might not believe entirely in the products and services they’re selling, but they genuinely believe that these people in a depressed area can turn their lives around.
While Damon’s typically great, the people around him elevate the material even more. Rosemary DeWitt gets a bit underused as a potential love interest, but as the wedge and pawn used by Steve’s rival to get his goat, she still delivers a strong performance in a somewhat thankless role. Ditto Holbrook who gets to be the token “voice of reason and all things good,” but even his speeches come with an appropriate amount of gravitas that serves the material well. And despite seeming a bit miscast in the “heavy” role, Krasinski holds his own as the character serving to make the somewhat disreputable leads likable in comparison despite thematically and subtextually on the side of what’s right.
But the biggest stand out here has to be the always capable McDormand, who has a role almost intriguingly similar in emotional weight to Damon’s despite having a bit less screen time. She too is searching for love and understanding like any average human being, while stuck in a business that allows little room for either. The only difference between Sue and Steve is that she has a couple of extra soul crushing years on him, and no matter how well they work together, she can cut ties with a community and the people around her far easier. When the film offers her character a chance at a better life away from her job, McDormand commands the film as someone with more to lose and someone more deeply frightened by the prospect of not landing the deal. She’s terrified of choosing the potentially wrong kind of happiness, and her performance holds the most welcome surprises in the film.
About two thirds of the way in, however, the film takes a somewhat unexpected twist that isn’t a bad direction to go in, but one that the film doesn’t know how to handle. Instead of keeping up with the moral ambiguity of what’s happening around these characters, it goes full on into Frank Capra “big speeches in front of obvious American flags” territory when it should actually be getting somewhat darker in tone. It’s hard to talk about how the film collapses without spoiling it, but since it avoids being schmaltzy for almost the entire running time up until that point, watching it turn into a different, faker sort of crowd pleaser feels like a genuine cheat. It’s an uneasy bait and switch that undermines not only the complex characters that Damon and Krasinski have come up with in the first place, but it undermines the political and environmental stances it was trying so hard to avoid being obvious about. Maybe shutting the film off once the big twist passes will make it a bit more palatable, but sadly that’s not an option one is likely to have while watching it in a theatre.