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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, January 4, 2013 - Volume 41 Issue 1
Beautifully acted Land doesn't fulfill its promise
Arts & Entertainment
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Beautifully acted Land doesn't fulfill its promise

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

PROMISED LAND
Opens January 4


Steve Butler (Matt Damon) and his charmingly sarcastic partner, Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand), have come to the rural farming township of McKinley to sell the citizens on allowing their employer to mine for natural gas. It's safe! It's not intrusive! It will bring needed jobs to the community! It will help fund the rundown schools! It will make those with large amounts of acreage rich beyond their wildest dreams! These are the claims Steve and Sue are making, and not to put it mildly both of them are extremely good at their jobs.

But obstacles arise. First off, local high-school science teacher Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook), an MIT grad and former senior-level engineer for Boeing, has looked into all the pros and cons of gas drilling and has discovered more than a few holes in the pair's seemingly innocuous pitch, some of them extremely dangerous. Second, a driven environmentalist, Dustin Noble (John Krasinski), has come to town ready for a fight, using images of dead cows and devastated farmlands to make his point that allowing drilling will be a danger to the entire community.

McKinley is going to vote as a town whether or not to allow the reps to go forward with their plans. But as the days go by and the debate goes on, Steve can't help but begin to wonder if he's actually on the right side of this fight, learning things about himself and his company that he had refused to look at in a clear-eyed fashion at any time before this.

BY THE NUMBERS
It should be noted upfront that Promised Land, directed by Gus Van Sant, scripted by Damon and Krasinski from an original story by Dave Eggers (Away We Go), offers up very little in the way of surprise. There's one, maybe, but to call it a shock would be something of a stretch, and by and large I had my suspicions about some of the shenanigans going on right from the start, so a third-act revelation hardly caught me off-guard. For the most part I knew exactly what was going to happen and where things were going to go next, Steve's moral and ethical evolution as paint-by-numbers as they come.

At the same time, Krasinski, Damon, and Van Sant's (the latter pair reuniting for the third time after Good Will Hunting and Gerry) little opus never bored, annoyed, or bothered me. The central characters are richly drawn, both Steven and Sue so sharply written I felt either of them could have jumped off the screen at any second and sat down to watch the rest of the picture right next to me. There are also plenty of little beats - small moments of warmth, depth, and honesty - that hit home, the trio delivering much of their narrative with distinct flair and welcome subtlety.

HOLBROOK, DEWITT WASTED
But it goes without saying Promised Land could have been much more than it is. Holbrook's science teacher is wonderfully introduced, intriguingly developed, and then subsequently forgotten for a large portion of the proceedings only to reappear at just the right moment to deliver pitch-perfect fatherly advice to a wayward soul desperately in need of it. Even worse off is the luminous Rosemarie DeWitt. She's stranded with a one-dimensional role and ends up being little more than a romantic ping-pong ball that Damon and Krasinski shuffle back and forth. So breathtaking in Your Sister's Sister and Rachel Getting Married, DeWitt deserves much, much better.

Still, I find it difficult to come down as hard on the film as I could. McDormand steals scenes with little effort, her final conversation with Damon an impeccably refined heartbreaker that gets right to the core of a complex issue in a way nothing else in the script comes close to equaling. There are also tons of little moments, scenes of deep understanding and mesmeric depth, that held me captivated - haunting little bits of brutal honesty that spoke volumes but did so without raising the decibel level past the point of didacticism.

DAMON DELIVERS
Then there is Damon. The guy is proving to not just be a good actor, but a downright exceptional one. Somewhere along the line - maybe it was The Talented Mr. Ripley, it could have been his transformation into an action star with The Bourne Identity, or it might have been teaming up with a cadre of talents in Ocean's Eleven - the guy has become one of the more intriguingly multifaceted actors working today. Fearless, keen to take risks, Damon is willing to allow audiences to despise him, knowing that if they follow a story all the way through a character's core will speak for itself, allowing them to analyze the man as a whole and not as specious fragments.

I wanted more from Promised Land - that I cannot deny. The final sequences, while beautifully delivered and composed, handled with uniquely disquieting subtlety by Van Sant, are so foregone that the emotional resonance of them ends up being muted. Yet thanks to the quality of the central performance, because Damon and Krasinski's script gets so many of the little beats right, I do find value here, and as such I can hardly dissuade those interested in the subject matter or the scenario from taking a look at the film for themselves.

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