Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Promised Land


I supposed my biggest issue with Promised Land is that it has an agenda. And a damn obvious one at that. At first glance, Gus Van Sant’s new film presents itself as an equally sided fight against capitalism and conservationism.  Voices are heard, monologues are delivered, and we’re initially left with an understanding of both sides of a local battle – that of the corporate sharks who try to buy people’s land to capitalize on the natural gas below it, and the farmers who try to maintain what they already have.

The film tracks Steve Butler (Matt Damon), a door-to-door salesman for a natural gas company, hot on the heels of a big promotion, as he quietly invades a small farming town with his partner in crime, Sue (Frances McDormand). Their game is to go in, dress the part, and move from home to home, convincing people that becoming filthy rich in a stalemate economy is the only way to survive. But once a composed environmentalist with a ridiculously leading name, Dustin Noble (John Krasinski), comes into town, Promised Land turns into a rudimentary exploration on The Man vs. The Machine.

And believe me, all the clich├ęd characters you might expect are here: the genius old timer who knows the damage a gas company can cause (Hal Holbrook), Sue’s would-be love interest who appears to be on her side solely for the prospect of getting laid (Titus Welliver), the gruff simpleton who says no (Scoot McNairy), the loud simpleton who says yes (Lucas Black), and, of course, the love interest who can’t decide which side to take, because she’s fallen for both Steven and Dustin (Rosemarie DeWitt).
Look, I’m not trying to belittle the intentions of those involved here, because quite frankly, those intentions are nothing if not earnest. And it helps that every actor I’ve mentioned fully invests in their role, and helps sell what the screenplay (co-authored by Damon and Krasinski) does not, but that simply isn’t enough to save Promised Land from itself.

In short, from the moment Krasinski’s character strolled into town in his alternatively fueled pick-up truck, I knew exactly where the movie was going. And in skimming other reviews of the film, it appears many others did too. I’m not saying it’s good, and I’m not saying it’s bad, I’m just saying it’s predictable, which is certainly not a word I ever hope to label one of Van Sant’s films.

Although I enjoyed the fact that the film’s R rating permitted the characters to talk how real people actually talk, I can’t argue that what they’re saying makes for compelling (or even good) cinema. Instead, Promised Land offers nothing new and goes exactly where you think it’s going, which is quickly away from your memory. C-

13 comments:

  1. Being a fan of Van Sant, I was hoping for something very different. I'm still going to see this film but... w/ very low expectations. After all, it can't be any worse than that project he might've developed with Taylor Lautner.

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    1. Oh yikes, Van Sant and Taylor Lautner just does not sound promising. That's a real bummer right there.

      Definitely see Promised Land, but I think low expectations are a good thing there. I was just very underwhelmed by it.

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  2. Always a movie that's about, what it's about, and never tries to defy any other story. That isn't so bad when you have an important-topic like fracking, but after awhile, it just becomes so heavy-handed and annoying, that you just want something else to see. Good review Alex.

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    1. Yes yes yes, totally agree with you, Dan. By the end, I had definitely grown annoyed with its heavy-handedness.

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  3. Great review! It's definitely nothing we haven't seen before, but I did appreciate the performances (still think Damon is very underrated) and the entertainment aspect. Though easily forgettable, I'd give it a B.

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    1. Thanks man! And a B is fair, I think. I can see how some might like this more than others, but aside from the acting (I agree, Damon was quite good), nothing made it stand out for me.

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  4. Excellent review. I am usually not enthusiastic about blatant "issues" movies, even when they jive with my progressive political leanings. :-D And this one does sound quite heavy-handed.

    Nevertheless, I'll probably give this one a go when it comes out on DVD, especially since Josh says the performances are strong. Frances McDormand is enough enticement for me.

    Might be a good "springboard for discussion" kind of movie for my homeschooled teens, both in terms of the environmental angle and my ongoing efforts to make them aware of and critical of propaganda (however well intentioned).

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    1. You know, it's actually kind of funny, because from a political (or socioeconomic) standpoint, I happen to agree with many of the characters in the film. But that, to me, still didn't make for compelling cinema. Which is kind of odd.

      The performances are good, and McDormand is as fantastic as ever. I will say that the film could definitely provoke some interesting discussions, but not in the way that, say, Lake of Fire might. That's a movie that'll nail you.

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    2. "from a political (or socioeconomic) standpoint, I happen to agree with many of the characters in the film. But that, to me, still didn't make for compelling cinema. Which is kind of odd" ... Makes perfect sense to me. Films that are clearly created to deliver a message are rarely compelling, even if you agree with the message.

      So am I going to have to add Lake of Fire to my list now? You guys have gotta stop giving me all these great movie recommendations. ;-)

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    3. Haha!! Well, Lake of Fire is tough (tough, tough, tough) cinema to take. A black and white, 2 and a half hour documentary about abortion. You hear (and see...) all sides of the fight. Very intense, but very very good.

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    4. O.K. ... now that you mention it, I have heard of Lake of Fire. Abortion debates are something I avoid for lots of reasons, including my own history of miscarriages. Not a road I care to go down. :-) But you have piqued my interest.

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    5. O.K. ... I just took a peek on Letterboxd. Isn't Tony Kaye the director of American History X? And Noam Chomsky is involved in this? Definitely intrigued. Added it to my list, though I may not be in a hurry to get to it. :-)

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    6. Yep, Kaye directed AMX and Chomsky is one of the people involved with the movie. I do love AMX, but I can honestly tell you Lake of Fire is the best thing Kaye has ever done. It stays COMPLETELY neutral, which is no easy feat.

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