The most undeserving film of the year
One of the downsides to having an awards season is that studios now make movies to be award contenders and buzz stars generating around the film before it even is seen by anybody. This leads to movies that never really deserved to have awards buzz getting it even when it turns out they don't deserve it all. It also leads to films being let downs when they don't live up to lofty expectations despite still being decent enough movies.
Promised Land is a movie tailor made for awards season. It's got big name actors and a socially responsible message all wrapped up in a neat small town Americana bow. This is a movie clearly designed to generate Oscar hype, but it's nowhere near the caliber of film it needs to be to deserve it. This is a decent movie made strangely worse by that fact that it isn't truly great.
The first thing to stress here is that despite the majority of this review having complaints in it this isn't a bad film in any way. It's just enjoyable enough to carry its weight and thanks to having two charming male leads, and two great supporting female actors you never lose interest in the characters. However, it just isn't that good and the film as a whole feels like a rambling cliche instead of a real message, especially once the end hits and your treated to the big "surprise."
I won't ruin it here, but the plot leading up to the film's ending is about natural gas drilling. Steve Butler (Matt Damon) is a small town kid whose grown up to become a very successful pitch man. He's in line to become a big timer at the natural gas company he works for and all he has to do is head out to one more town and sell them on the idea of selling their land for fracking. He heads out with his acerbic partner Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand) and starts scooping up the land from farmers. All is going well until the town decides to hold a vote instead of just selling the land and an environmentalist, Dustin Noble (John Krasinski), shows up. During the whole debacle Steve starts finding himself again and falling in love with Alice (Rosemary DeWitt).
The movie really doesn't think it's cookie cutter, but it couldn't be more so. The plot rolls along at the pace of a small town and attempts to jar you every so often, but is too cushioned from its own cliches to really pull anything off. You can see them checking off boxes for what an environmental/mid-life crisis film needs in it. Especially useless is Steve's love interest in Alice, which seems so out of the blue that you're actually hoping it won't work out and drag the rest of the movie down. Steve as a character all around makes little sense as he's supposed to be a very experienced and good pitchman for his company and yet is routinely shocked by the presumed horrors of fracking. We're supposed to believe that he just bought into the company line, but it's hard to reconcile they character they establish in the beginning with the one we see play out in the movie.
That's no fault of Matt Damon's who is as affable and charming as he usually is, though seems to be somewhat sleepwalking through this performance. His character seems to be someone who should have a bit more edge to him, but Damon plays him pretty flat throughout. It's hard to get on his side since he never really pulls you in. McDormand however is delightful and far more interesting than most of the film's more prominent characters. While the depth she's given as a character is also pretty cliche she works it well to deliver the only person who feels at all rounded in the movie. Krasinski is Krasinski so if you like that then you'll like him.
Director Gus Van Sant does do a fantastic job of what he's always done a fantastic job at, which is making movies that visually capture a certain slice of life. His small town America looks fantastic, and while this effort is nowhere near his last work with Damon (Good Will Hunting) the two clearly know how to make a movie together. Still, Van Sant doesn't do anything too special hear to make the film stand out, he just doesn't get in the way of what's on the screen.
What you probably won't like is the bait and switch the movie performs. There just feels like there should be a lot more depth to the film, but instead everything is surface lever. The characters have no dimension, and the story is far from subtle making its blatantly obvious environmental/anti-business message a bit too clear. I'm already on the film's side for the most part I don't need to be bashed over the head with your message to agree with you. Promised Land is in desperate need of taking a step back from making a bold statement and instead making a statement that you care about.