I’ll admit I had fairly high expectations for the new Gus Van Sant-Matt Damon collaboration, Promised Land. Given the masterpiece they produced with their previous film (and one of my all time favorites), Good Will Hunting, and an effective trailer, I had no reason to think otherwise. Sadly, I was wrong.
With all the trappings of Oscar-bait — an Oscar-nominated director, Oscar-winning writer, a score by Danny Elfman, brilliant award-winning actors ,a timely release date, and culturally relevant subject matter — Promised Land could have been a superb film, and yet it falls short of the mark. Then again, maybe that’s just it. It was trying too hard.
Opening with a lengthy overhead shot of the sprawling patchwork countryside and the film starts out beautifully and effortlessly. The opening scene easily introduces our main character, Steve Butler (Damon), salesman for a major natural gas company, who’s interviewing for a promotion just before going on assignment in a new town. We learn that Steve, and his partner Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand), are very good at what they do, in part due to Steve’s upbringing in a small factory town.
The duo begins their sales assignment and all goes as planned until a schoolteacher (and retired engineer) Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook) raises questions about the environmental and economic consequences, which in turn prompts the appearance of one-man environmental group Dustin Noble (John Krasinski). Queue corporate panic attack and personal doubts for our protagonist.
The acting is definitely a strong aspect of the film. Damon and McDormand are seasoned actors and, not surprisingly, convey complicated characters through convincing nuances. Plus they clearly work well together. Even John Krasinski, whom I love in The Office but have never seen as having much talent, brings a believable, sleazy charm to his environmental activist.
With a protagonist and antagonist who are neither clearly “good” or “bad” and no clear “right” ending, the story really isn’t all that bad. It just isn’t executed in an effective or emotional manner. The weakness comes primarily from the writing.
Some judicious edits might have helped, like cutting the romance subplot, which is mostly fluff as it is. Developing Steve’s relationship with Frank Yates would have benefited the script even more. Not only is Hal Holbrook a great actor (who isn’t utilized nearly enough in the film despite instigating the initial conflict), the scenes with him and Steve are already the most engaging and emotionally robust parts of the film that connect with Steve’s somewhat vague past. So why not work with what works?
Ultimately, Promised Land is film with lofty aspirations that ends up being merely decent. The story doesn’t focus on the right things and the characters need just a little more development for the audience to truly understand their growth throughout the film. Still, the film's ethical conflict and acting all make it worth seeing at some time, even if that time is after it’s reached Netflix.