Promised Land

Steve Butler (Matt Damon) is very good at his job; so good, he’s being considered for a major promotion.  He works for a Global Energy, large energy company, and his job is to gain the trust of landowners and get their signatures on lease agreements so his employer can drill for natural gas on their land.  He’s in another small town with co-worker and friend Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand) that could use an influx of cash in a difficult economy when, during a town meeting, he meets some unexpected resistance to his sales pitch from high school science teacher Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook).  Yates, a retired engineer, believes the method of gas extraction the company plans on using, known as fracking, will likely pollute the ground water.  Yates suggests the town vote on allowing the energy company to drill and the vote is set for three weeks.  This unwelcome resistance is made worse by the arrival of Dustin Noble (John Krasinski) from an environmental group who tells the story of how his father’s farm was ruined due to fracking.  Scrambling under the weight of this opposition that’s gaining traction with the town’s population, Steve stops by the local bar for a few drinks where he meets a teacher named Alice (Rosemary DeWitt) celebrating her birthday.  Alice and Steve enjoy some flirtation but his focus is still on getting as many lease agreements signed as possible and closing this deal.

“Promised Land” started out with a great deal of, pardon the expression, promise.  The likable cast, led by Matt Damon, Frances McDormand and John Krasinski, is supported by a script that, at first, is running strong on all cylinders.  The conflict is set up quickly, the arguments for both sides are clear and convincing, and no matter the resolution, it seems somebody will be very hurt by the outcome.  I was interested in what was going on throughout the film…until the last few minutes.  That’s when the wheels came off and the whole movie collapsed in on itself.
Matt Damon is very, very good in the film.  His Steve Butler is an ambitious, dedicated and loyal employee.  That loyalty is rather blind and innocent and he’s knocked off balance rather easily when the pushback against his sales pitch begins.  He’s from a small farming community that died a quick death when the local farm tractor factory closed down when he was in high school.  He knows rural towns like this are an endangered species in modern America and he sees himself and his offer of natural gas money as the last chance these people have to make any kind of life where they are.  He’s flabbergasted that anyone would turn down his promise of riches in exchange for their signatures.  Damon plays the character as an earnest, honest and caring guy.  The fact that he’s also rather naïve about his employer and the lengths they would go to gain the drilling leases makes his downfall almost inevitable.
Frances McDormand is also great in her role as Sue Thomason.  While we know a little less about her backstory, we do find out she’s a divorced doting mother to a teenage boy with whom she speaks every night via Skype.  She also begins a flirtation with a store owner that, if given time and different circumstances, might lead to a romance.  As the story progressed, I began to wonder if Sue was making nice with the shop keeper as part of her job trying to win the townsfolk’s trust.  We get something of an answer by the end of the film.  The friendly sniping between Damon and McDormand has the comfortable feel of two old buddies who know how to get a rise out of each other without damaging their relationship.  Their interplay is a welcome part of the movie.
John Krasinski as the troublemaking tree hugger Dustin Noble plays the role like a frenemy to the big, bad energy company folks.  He carries out a number of pranks on Steve and Sue that are rather funny, like putting a door-sized poster saying “Global Go Home” over Steve’s hotel room door, so when he opens it to leave, there’s this unfriendly greeting blocking his way.  He also plasters their car’s windshield with anti-fracking pamphlets and uses money they give him to go away for yard signs against them.  While he is earnest and dedicated to his cause, he is also friendly and non-confrontational in his approach.  The character could have come off self-righteous and smug.  Instead, Krasinski is able to make his environmentalist likable and relatable.
All this good acting and a smart script is for naught however, due to a bad decision by scriptwriters Damon and Krasinski to turn the film’s ending into a sappy and ultimately predictable conclusion.  A plot twist late in the film sets up the eventual finish that wastes everything that came before.  I won’t ruin it for you and maybe it won’t destroy your perception of the film the way it did mine.  I’ll just say that the film’s ultimate point of view is made crystal clear in the final few minutes.  While it’s rather obvious throughout, the filmmaker’s desire to hammer his point home brings down what otherwise would have been a very good movie and makes it a little less than average.  Some thought and imagination might have made the movie’s conclusion one of those “nobody’s right and nobody’s wrong” sort of endings that lead to discussion and continued thought after leaving the theatre.  As it is, the audience is spoon-fed what they should think and it left a bad taste in my mouth.
“Promised Land” is rated R for language.  Foul language is fairly common but not oppressive.  I suppose the film got its rating due to the number of “F-bombs” that are dropped.
“Promised Land” wastes not only most of its running time with a sappy ending, it also wastes the talents of Rosemarie DeWitt as school teacher Alice.  She is brought on screen only occasionally to suggest a possible romance with Damon that never happens.  Her character is used like a doormat for most of the film and she isn’t given very much to do.  I’m not sure why her character is even in the movie since she’s so under used.  It’s just another example of the missed opportunities of “Promised Land.”
“Promised Land” gets two guitars out of five.
There’s a wide variety of films coming out this week.  Which one I see and review is your decision, so vote!
Gangster Squad—Ruthless gangster Mickey Cohen practically runs Los Angeles in the late 1940’s.  An off-the-books group of police will risk their lives to stop his crime spree.
A Haunted House—A parody movie sending up “Paranormal Activity” and other “found footage” horror films.
Hyde Park on Hudson—It’s June 1939 and the reigning British king and queen visit President and Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt at their New York home. War with Germany looms on the horizon, and England desperately needs the president's support.
The Impossible—The inspiring story, based on actual events, of one family’s struggle in the aftermath of the 2006 Indian Ocean tsunami.
Zero Dark Thirty—Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Osama bin Laden becomes one of the most-wanted men on the planet.  This is the story of the brave men and women who finally brought him to justice.
Stan’s Choice—Stan sees and reviews any film currently in theatres.
Release dates are subject to change and not all films may be shown in Knoxville, TN.
Questions or comments can be sent to  Follow Stan on Twitter @moviemanstan.