There are shots in Gus Van Sant’s Promised Land that could be mistaken for shots in 1991’s My Own Private Idaho: beautiful pastoral scenes, rolling country roads, the filmmaker’s signature time-lapse clouds. But where Idaho evokes Shakespeare and surrealism, Promised Land is a more humble film, about a farm boy-turned-corporate salesman named Steve (Matt Damon) who travels to small American towns and buys up land to drill for natural gas. But as he goes door to door convincing the blue-collar Pennsylvania townsfolk that natural gas promises an economic windfall, Steve begins to question his own silver-tongued pitch. It’s a familiar narrative arc—likable corporate villain undergoes crisis of conscience—executed skillfully and sympathetically, though hampered by a few preachy incidents and some dubious plot twists late in the film. As Steve, Damon (who also wrote the screenplay, along with fellow star John Krasinski) gives a characteristically genuine performance, trilling a consistent refrain: “I’m not a bad guy.” But when high-school science teacher—and former Boeing engineer—Frank Yates (a reliably twinkly Hal Holbrook) whips out some damning data on fracking, Steve flails. The real trouble, though, arrives in the form of the improbably named Dustin Noble (Krasinski), a slightly smarmy charmer who further peeves Steve by snaring pretty elementary schoolteacher Alice (a good-spirited but dramatically superfluous Rosemarie DeWitt). Though Van Sant’s assured direction allows the drama to build quietly, Promised Land can’t help but wear its heart on its sleeve, and in the third act succumbs to a cheap shock. In a picture that’s otherwise well-acted, well-intentioned and handsomely shot, such late-in-the-game manipulations of storytelling leave a sour taste. Van Sant has called Promised Land his opportunity to make a movie in the spirit of Frank Capra, but the machinations of Damon and Krasinski’s screenplay have done him a disservice.
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- Release Date: Friday, December 28, 2012
- MPAA Rating: R
- Critic's Score: B
- Watch the trailer