For better and for worse, the films of Gus Van Sant are a novelty. With little consistency to his style, rarely can you predict the path he’ll take next; despite enthralling both audiences and the Academy with Good Will Hunting in 1997, he seemingly went out of his way to enrage them with a shot-for-shot, colour remake of Hitchcock’s seminal Psycho the following year. Nevertheless, the director’s willingness to experiment ensures his films are always worth a watch, and while that can still be said for Promised Land, his latest collaboration with co-writer and star Matt Damon (Good Will Hunting), it can only be said halfheartedly.
Promised Land tells the quiet tale of Steve Butler (Matt Damon), a salesman for a natural gas company hoping to get permission to drill in a small rural town, hit by hard times. At first, Steve and his partner (Frances McDormand) find the majority of residents salivating at the proposed financial opportunities, but with the arrival of a pesky environmentalist (John Krasinski), the community quickly changes their tune and begin reaching for their pitchforks.
This movie has been branded by many as “The Fracking Movie”. Fracking is slang for hydraulic fracturing: a controversial way of getting oil and gas out of the earth due to its tendency to contaminate the area’s ground water. Understandably, Promised Land delves through subject matter steeped in what could almost appear to be a political statement, and many will look at it that way. But there’s more depth to be found in the performances and characters than there are the politics, and despite a few incredulous moments, Promised Land does well to retain its authenticity, in no small part due to the intelligent dialogue and Matt Damon’s excellent performance. With endearing everyman naivety, Damon explores the moral minefield of desperately trying to do what’s right, in the face of being employed to do what’s wrong.
Where the film does fumble, however, is the plot. While Damon and Krasinski have penned likable, real characters, the story surrounding them is only sporadically compelling. The emotion is there, but aside from the occasional standout moment — such as one blistering confrontation in a bar — Promised Land’s earnest and contrived plotting doesn’t elicit much more than mild intrigue.
These problems, however inhibiting, are somewhat mitigated by Van Sant’s careful direction and Damon’s standout performance, making for a watchable yet forgettable drama. Here’s hoping, for his next outing, Van Sant dares to be different once again, stirring the pot with something less afraid to offend. Perhaps a shot-for-shot, 3D remake of Citizen Kane would do the trick?