The last time Matt Damon and director Gus Van Sant teamed up, the result was “Good Will Hunting,” an indie crowd-pleaser that yielded Oscar nods for both men. Seventeen years later, the pair have reunited, with mixed results, for “Promised Land,” a fracking drama whose small virtues manage to keep it from tanking.
Having produced the film and penned the script with co-star John Krasinski, Damon (who also co-wrote “Good Will Hunting”) shoulders a heap of responsibilities, and thus a good bit of the blame for the movie’s failings. Among them is a quaint conclusion a few rungs up from that of your average dramedy, and a cockamamie twist that threatens to dismantle all merit.
But despite its disappointing glut of compromises and tricks, “Promised Land” exudes a palpable sensitivity and an authentic down-home aura, unfolding in a small town rich with universal, and yet specific, vitality. The town, McKinley, is a professional bull’s-eye for Steve (Damon) and his partner, Sue (Frances McDormand), smooth-talking employees of a major natural gas company that aims to buy out landowners and harvest their fuel-filled acres. The trouble is, informed residents like Frank (Hal Holbrook) smell a rat, and eco-friendly protester Dustin (Krasinski) has plans of his own.
Though it somewhat backhandedly insults the folks of rural America, showing only one person capable of educating himself online, Van Sant’s film offers a vivid representative sample of exploited citizens, who regularly fall victim to the iron fist of big business. For every lamentable cliché, like a naive, gung-ho client (Lucas Black) eager to get rich, there’s a fine, substantial character like Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt), who believably doesn’t know what to make of what’s befallen her modest home.
In the end, “Promised Land” benefits much from being helmed by a bona fide director, and not some hack-for-hire to whom such projects are too frequently handed. The missteps of the actors’ script are often salvaged by Van Sant’s grace, and his coaching of the gifted cast aids a satisfying, if not wholly successful, experience.
Two-and-a-half reels out of four
Now playing in area theaters
To Rome with Love
There are those who’ll tell you that Woody Allen is off his game with “To Rome with Love,” the follow-up to the director’s wildly successful “Midnight in Paris.” But the fact remains that Allen is one of cinema’s finest storytellers, and in a year that saw a shortage of great original scripts, one could surely do worse that this multi-narrative Italian romance, which sees Allen himself on screen for the first time in six years. Even if the film were Allen’s worst (which it’s not), it still trumps many other filmmakers’ bests.
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