In its last 20 or so minutes, a movie generally glides to its conclusion along the path laid out by its first two acts. If the director has done a passable job, all he needs to do in these final moments of film is avoid wetting the bed as things resolve themselves in a satisfying, natural fashion. Unless you’re M. Night Shyamalan, who seems determined to stay in business, you don’t need an Oscar to figure out a film’s generic story arc. And between both Matt Damon and Gus Van Sant, they have a statuette and four nominations. Yet somehow, in their new film “Promised Land,” they spend the last act not only wetting the bed, but aggressively drowning what had been a beautifully balanced, topical human drama.
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“Promised Land” tackles the politically sensitive issue of fracking, a method of natural gas production that might or might not contaminate local groundwater to the point where tap water becomes flammable. Does this mean cheap, clean-burning energy or environmental doomsday? All the residents of McKinley, an impoverished farming community, know is that they’re sitting on millions of dollars worth in energy. To them, fracking signals a future of social mobility, and Steve Butler (Damon, “The Departed”), a hotshot salesman and upper management candidate at big energy analogue Global Crosspower, is determined to see this future through, offering to buy up huge swathes of property in order to set up gas wells all over town. He’s thwarted at every turn, however, by Dustin Noble (John Krasinski, TV’s “The Office”), an environmentalist who accuses Global’s fracking operation of destroying his family farm.
Van Sant (“Good Will Hunting”), who directed the film, and Damon, who co-wrote the screenplay with Krasinski, are both noted liberals less than shy about flouting their political beliefs, so the film’s initially well-balanced take on the issue is a pleasant surprise. Damon plays Butler, a character that doesn’t lean upon the oily, overused character tropes inherent in “corporate puppet.” It’s revealed that he lived through the economic stagnation he sees in McKinley — it’s casually mentioned that he grew up in Iowa. Coupled with Damon’s passionate performance, Butler becomes a strangely sympathetic character, offering McKinley residents what he feels is the only way to sustainably preserve their quaint country lifestyle.
But Noble doesn’t make Butler’s life easy. With gruesome pictures of dead cows resting on seemingly pristine farmland, and anti-fracking propaganda delivered with heaping doses of hyperbole to, among other audiences, an easily indoctrinated classroom full of elementary school students, Noble’s cheap, aggressive tactics soon have us rooting for his downfall, and the townspeople within inches of running Butler out on a rail.
Krasinski’s performance works exceptionally in large part due to his skill and reputation for playing the nice guy everyman. Though Butler and his sales team engage in nefarious, serpentine tactics of their own, stopping at a country store to stock up on flannel work clothes in order to blend in with the town population, it’s Krasinski who seems oddly artificial. For a character whose Nebraska dairy farm was allegedly decimated by fracking, his monologues seem oddly general and dispassionate. Meanwhile, Butler seems to draw upon his past, summoning up frustration at a population that, in his mind, refuses to help itself escape the inevitable. Damon in particular shows off his acting chops in an impressive monologue in a local bar, where he describes gas money as life-changing, “fuck you” money, enough to keep the farms in business, the city from encroaching and put children through college.
At this point, the film is a compelling duality, giving us two sides of a muddled issue that represents a very real catch-22. And in addition to Butler and Noble’s sparring, Van Sant creates a true mosaic of small-town life, through conversations with McKinley residents, portrayed by an impressive cast of oft-overlooked character actors. Through these performances, we see an impressive array of perspectives, including, very humorously a trailer park resident who signs over his gas-rich lot and flips the money into a Corvette and drinks at the bar for his buddies. It’s all incredibly compelling, showing us the human side of industrial decision making for us to mull over.
But at the end of the day, it wouldn’t be a Hollywood-sponsored activist film without the inevitable anti-corporate twist. Without revealing too much, nothing a lucid, critically thinking audience wouldn’t see coming, everything ends up being a big, evil, corporate conspiracy. At the beginning of the third act, as Van Sant, Damon and Krasinski decide, completely irrationally, to throw what has been a brilliantly crafted film, off the cliff and into the churning surf below. The movie’s quality up to this point makes this all the more disappointing. It’s definitely a film worth watching for its performances alone, but do yourselves a favor and leave early.