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Fracking and Feelings 

Matt Damon's message movie misses the mark

Promised Land wants to be a message movie, but it's too messy to deliver that message coherently.

Originally slated to be Matt Damon's directorial debut, it was instead directed by his pal Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting), who, with this and last year's mawkish Restless, finds himself in a bit of a slump. Although Damon relinquished the director's chair, he still shared screenwriting duties with John Krasinski, and both have big roles in the film.

Damon plays Steve Butler, a likable corporate pawn for a natural gas company sent to a farming town with a mandate to sell the community on allowing its presence. That presence would mean a lot of "fracking," a natural gas extraction process that involves deep drilling and some possible environmental side effects.

Steve is presented as a virtuous fellow who looks to do well and get ahead. He's just about to get a big promotion, and with a wisecracking co-worker at his side (Frances McDormand), he's set to sell fracking to a town mixed with differing opinions on what to do with the land. Some, like Paul (Lucas Black), are looking for a big payday, while others, like Frank (a well-placed Hal Holbrook), look to get in Steve's way.

Also looking to get in Steve's way would be Dustin (Krasinski), a rebel environmentalist who claims fracking wrecks farms and kills livestock. He posts pictures of dead cows around town and playfully intimidates Steve at local bars. He even makes a move on Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt), the small-town girl Steve has his eyes on.

Is Promised Land trying to preach that fracking and natural gas as a resource are bad choices? I really couldn't tell you in the end. The film is far more preoccupied in giving us a nice, happy, pleasant outcome for Steve. Van Sant wants you to leave this movie thinking Damon's Steve is just swell, even if he did put people's livelihoods and land in jeopardy.

There's also a big twist that is nothing but a screenwriting stunt to throw the likes of you off course. It completely undermines any "message" the film is trying to deliver, and comes off as something that would never, ever happen in a movie that is supposed to be realistic.

It's too bad. I liked the idea of Van Sant tackling a simple farm-town story. It really is his most conventional film yet, and the subject matter had me curious. But the Damon/Krasinski screenplay betrays him in the end. Damn your pen, Matt Damon!

Damon's acting is OK. He's playing somebody similar in mannerisms to the character he played in We Bought a Zoo (he wrote Promised Land with Krasinski while taking breaks from making Zoo). His acting is better than his writing. The same can't be said for Krasinski, who both writes and acts badly for this one. Love the dude on The Office, but I'm lukewarm on him at the movies thus far.

As for McDormand, she rises above the material and makes her moments in the film worth watching. The same can be said for Rosemarie DeWitt, who made a habit this year of showing her face in movies unworthy of her. She also starred in the mediocre Nobody Walks, the lousy The Odd Life of Timothy Green and The Watch (I am one of the few critics who actually liked that one).

Promised Land left me feeling weird, and I don't think that was its intention. Sure, it made me curious about fracking, but it seemed a little too chicken to stick to its guns and deliver a meaningful statement on anything. Instead, it just wants to get all touchy-feely in the end. Van Sant has made an awkward movie that I think will be fracking forgotten by this time next year.

Promised Land
Rated R · 106 minutes · 2013
Official Site: www.promisedlandthefilm.com
Director: Gus Van Sant
Producer: Chris Moore, Matt Damon, John Krasinski, Gus Van Sant, Ron Schmidt, Jeff Skoll and Jonathan King
Cast: Matt Damon, John Krasinski, Frances McDormand, Rosemarie DeWitt, Hal Holbrook, Lucas Black, Scoot McNairy, Titus Welliver, Terry Kinney, Tim Guinee, Dorothy Silver, Joe Coyle, Sara Lindsey, Ken Strunk, Karen Baum, Johnny Cicco, Kristin Slaysman, Carrington Vaughn and Cain Alexander

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What others are saying (11)

Style Weekly Movie Review: "Promised Land" This environmental drama drills into the complex fossil-fuel debate. by Wayne Melton 01/22/2013
Indy Week Matt Damon's anti-fracking Promised Land It's hard to achieve high-minded aims using this single-minded script, acting and filmmaking acumen. by Neil Morris 01/02/2013
8 more reviews...
Boise Weekly A Promise Keeper and a New Dealer Both now playing at The Flicks by George Prentice 01/02/2013
Arkansas Times A fracking feature Damon's 'Promised Land' avoids polemic. by Sam Eifling 01/02/2013
Creative Loafing Atlanta Matt Damon goes good will fracking in Promised Land The environmental drama fails to spark the natural gas debate by Curt Holman 12/26/2012
Colorado Springs Independent What the frack? Promised Land The script gives us a protagonist who's not self-evidently in need of redemption, nor does he appear to be a stooge with blinders on. by Scott Renshaw 01/02/2013
The Coast Halifax Promised Land Environmentalist film features characters that could use a little more effort by Jacob Boon 01/10/2013
Portland Mercury Hollywood Thinks You're Dumb Promised Land is frustratingly close to great. by Alison Hallett 12/26/2012
Memphis Flyer Promised Land Good performances undercut by phony resolution in would-be fracking exposé. by Chris Herrington 01/03/2013

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