"You people baffle me," a drunken Matt Damon mumbles to a crowd of hostile Pennsylvanian farmers seconds before a well-deserved punch to the jaw beats his once confident corporate demeanor further into the ground.
With Promised Land, co-written by Damon and directed by Portland’s own Gus Van Sant, the duo return to the rough cinematic idealism of Good Will Hunting, which won Damon an Oscar for screenwriting and Van Sant a nomination. But this time Damon’s not the cocky genius handing people their pride at the bar (“How do you like them apples?); instead, he’s the formerly cocky corporate drone getting served. And instead of being refreshingly new, the story is one we've all seen before, with Van Sant’s efforts paling to his previous work, though he alone is not to blame.
The film centers around the controversial practice of fracking, an invasive method of extracting natural gas that is neither sexy nor glamorous. From a script written by Damon and John Krasinski, Van Sant attempts to make a compelling drama out of the conflict between the big business that needs land to drill and prideful farmers, who are conflicted about their duty to home and family and their financial security in an increasingly dire economy.
Throughout, Van Sant utilizes his iconic tracking shots and a melancholic score as his tough characters wander through the sweeping Pennsylvania countryside. These moments, devoid of clichéd dialogue and full of that nameless existential weight Van Sant captures so well, may be the best part of the film. Instead of burdening the viewer with predictability, they allow the audience to relax and connect with a genuine wordless sadness. But these moments of sincerity, unlike the abundant natural gas the characters are chasing, are precious because they are rare, as the script inevitably pulls actors and director alike back onto a well-worn cinematic path.
Damon plays Steve Butler, who swoops into our downtrodden, pastoral Pennsylvania with his sidekick Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand, who radiates warmth with her usual no-nonsense demeanor) to snatch up land for the Global Cross Power Solutions. Both represent the cold arrogance of corporate greed—wolves in sheep’s clothing who smile and crack deceptively original jokes with the locals.
Butler is originally an Iowa farm boy who rose beyond his agricultural destiny for a big-time job with the $9 billion energy company, and he uses this past for manipulation and profit. Haunted by the ruination of his own hometown and pressured by ruthless executives and the need to maintain his numbers, Butler attempts to steamroll through rural communities, seeing himself as a realist, a savior who has arrived to save the farmers from their “dying” way of life—intangibles like generational pride and honor be damned.
Damon carries the weight of the film, sparring with locals, the most eloquent of whom is a scientist and teacher played with grouchy wisdom by Hal Holbrook; an agitator environmentalist (the eternally grinning, charming Krasinski), and of course, himself. But as local resistance builds, Butler’s own identity disintegrates, and he begins to spin adrift between his adherence to corporate money and a newfound belief in a past he had all but forgotten.
But despite decent performances and Van Sant’s steady hand, the film never takes off, unable to overcome the script’s subservience to a clichéd story structure and plot devices. There’s the challenging female love interest, the conflict with locals, the re-discovery of an earnest moral compass, the sacrifice of money for the sake of doing the right thing. It is a film we have all seen a thousand times, a film without spark that eventually goes absolutely nowhere and has even won the nickname Promise Bland. At least we get to revel in Damon’s cool baby blue eyes as he predictably shacks up with the past he once abandoned, his fate left to anyone’s guess. But unfortunately, by the time it happens, no one really cares.