Promised Land is a frustrating film that falls victim to an unfortunate and predictable paradox: the closer it comes to dropping (or at least pausing) its narrative to make room for the message it really wants to discuss, the less interesting it becomes. It’s not that a film can’t, or shouldn’t, engage with complicated moral or political issues; rather, it’s that doing so is incredibly hard to do without abandoning character, story, and the nuts and bolts that keep the movie together in the first place. Co-written by stars Matt Damon and John Krasinski, drawn from a story Krasinski developed with Dave Eggers, and directed by Gus Van Sant, Promised Land deals nominally with an upwardly mobile executive for a natural gas company (Damon) who finds himself at odds with an environmental crusader (Krasinski). And when the film actually connects itself to its characters — when the arguments for and against the energy at the heart of the story are being made by people with real lives, real opinions, real goals — it feels like a potentially rewarding drama about what it means to watch your way of life die out. But too often, the film avoids complication or maturity and opts for the simplest, broadest, least believable option. It stops being a story about these people and becomes instead a tract that happens to feature these people.
What’s most disappointing about the film is the way it oscillates between maturity and naivete; in some moments, it deals with complicated situations in an engaging and realistic way, while in others, it falls back on easy cliche and pandering. When Steve (Damon) and Sue (Frances McDormand), a pair of representatives for a natural gas company, arrive in the latest of hundreds of small towns to start the process of leasing valuable land from the locals, the film isn’t shy about their motives or methods. Steve, who’s been bucking for a promotion to the V.P. level, can run a good line about how small towns need industry if they’re going to survive, which makes partnering with energy companies a natural step. He and his partner also show up in a beat-up Jeep and stock up on flannel and earth-toned gear before making the rounds, cynically joking about the color schemes and dressing habits of the small-town citizens they’re about to try and fleece. Sue, though, is the film’s most compelling character because she’s the only one honest enough to try and figure out how to live in the tension between both sides. Yes, she works for a soulless energy company, but she’s also a devoted mom who spends her spare time calling or video chatting with her son back home. “It’s just a job,” she reminds Steve at one point, and though there’s a degree to which she’s trying to convince herself that that’s the case, she’s also right: This isn’t a cause for her, or a defining career. It’s just what she’s doing to get by. In a movie like this, with a story like this, that’s a wonderfully fresh and interesting perspective, but it’s one that’s drowned out as the film goes on. McDormand plays the role so directly and casually you almost forget how good she is at, well, everything.
After a few initial successes, Steve’s plan to sign energy leases for individual plots of land stalls when Frank (Hal Holbrook), a local high school science teacher who used to work for Boeing, stands up at a town hall meeting and deals Steve some damaging rhetorical blows about the dangers of drilling and the potential for environmental fallout (poisoned water supplies, etc.) when hydraulic fracturing is used to capture natural gas from below the earth’s surface. He suffers another setback with the arrival of Dustin Noble (Krasinski), a one-man environmental group who’s determined to stop Steve’s company with a grassroots campaign of pure aw-shucks charm. Steve’s determined to win his own hearts-and-minds campaign, though, and the two men square off over the fate of the town. Steve’s also got his eye on Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt), a teacher he meets at a bar his first night in town, so it’s no surprise hen Dustin starts courting her, too.
There’s a fascinating core to Steve that the film tentatively explores before chickening out. He’s a former small-town boy who knows what it means to grow up in a poor farming community, and Damon invests the character with a believable mix of anger and frustration when confronted by people who refuse to listen to his sales pitch. He wants so badly to offer a chance at a better life, to give these people the things he never had, and he makes cogent points about the dangers of pride. Time and again, I found myself nodding along with Steve: yes, this is a tough issue, and yes, people will need energy, and yes, we have a major oil and coal problem. Choices are hard all around. There’s real fire in his torment and in the way he doesn’t understand why these people cling to a land that so often refuses their love. The town’s holdouts talk about working land they got from their fathers, who got it from their fathers before them. But go back a few more generations and you’re not talking about birthrights and well-loved tractors; you’re talking about land that used to belong to another nation entirely, and that was made profitable on the backs of a people bowed by chains. Where does community fit into this? What does it mean to make something your own? How do you define your life, your home, yourself? The movie comes so frustratingly close to dealing with these things before giving up entirely, which would make us damn fools for letting them pose a question and get away without at least attempting to answer it.
Saddest of all is that, despite considerable talent in front of and behind the camera, the film feels like a sham, and it doesn’t trust us nearly as much as it says it does. It purports to be about the virtue of choice, but some twists late in the game make it clear that the big bad guy had a secret plan all along, which makes everything that came before that much less interesting. The energy company is pilloried for trying to play both sides, but they’re no worse than the filmmakers, who pile on cheap truisms and literal flag-waving in an attempt to evoke a spirit of a corn-fed America that only exists in movies like this one. Promised Land feels too much like the kind of movie Hollywood makes to feel good about itself, a brief genuflection toward change before marching on like nothing ever happened. It looks so good from far away, but it’s just the same old shuck and jive.