I’ve never really cared too much for Gus Van Sant‘s work. I’m not exactly sure why, but the films of his that I have seen really haven’t moved me all that much. This makes it incredibly hard for me to actively want to go and see his latest film, especially when it’s about two gas company reps. that are being sent to a small town to try and get them to sell their land. Promised Land doesn’t sound too appealing or for the lack of a better word interesting, yet because of Matt Damon and John Krasinski‘s performances and screenplay it becomes just that; an interesting story about small town communities and what they stand for.
Steve Butler (Matt Damon) considers himself to be very good at his job. He along with his partner Sue (Frances McDormand) go to small little dying farm towns and pitch them on natural gas and how much money it can bring to the people and the community as a whole. It sounds like a great thing to do, but with anything that involves mining natural resources there’s always a possibility of unchangeable danger that could tarnish the crops and land forever.
Still, Steve and Sue focus on the good that they’d be doing for the community, while leaving the bad as an afterthought. They’re not bad people, but instead just people doing their job and naturally trying to look out for the greater picture. They may come from a big city where money and power is more important than pride and dignity, but they’re still trying to help people. They just choose not to let the bad stuff hold them down as much as others.
Their plan is first spoiled by a local teacher named Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook). Yates proposes that what they’re trying to do is bad and he has many lawsuits to prove it. He’s clearly done his research and he cares more about the long-lasting survival of the town and its people than a quick couple million to spread around like butter on a piece of toast.
This doesn’t completely bury Steve and Sue, but it does throw a fork in their get-in and get-out plan. They’re now forced to stay a little longer in the town in hopes of finding a middle ground for everyone to agree on.
Here’s where things get really sticky. An unknown environmentalist by the name of Dustin (John Krasinski) comes in and puts virtually the entire town against Steve and Sue and the company they represent. He posts banners around the town and goes door-to-door giving speeches about how his local town was once destroyed by big companies with employees like Steve and Sue.
This lays out the groundwork for the rest of the film, which is one interesting look at rural towns and the people that inhabit them.
Gus Van Sant is no stranger to directing dramas with conflicted characters and with Promised Land he shows you not one, but two of them. The easily identified one is played by Matt Damon. His character of Steve is that of an honest and hard-working man that just wants what’s right for everyone, even if it means putting a little dirt in the water. He’s not hungry for money or out to ruin the little people, but he’s sort of sick and tired of the old-school mentality that most farming communities abide by and he simply wants to help them evolve and grow into bigger things than they could have ever imagined.
Matt Damon plays this role with nobility and a competitive nature that drives Steve through the entire film. Damon’s clearly a loner that’s given up on some of the happiest things life has to offer and Promised Land mostly focuses on his character’s slow change in morals. You don’t see a bad man become good, but instead a good man become better with the help of a small group of people.
John Krasinski‘s Dustin is the other conflicted character. He might seem like a man without flaws at first, but he’s actually the film’s biggest wild card. His character’s complete intentions are what makes Promised Land carve itself as something a little different than what the trailers are advertising.
Gus Van Sant‘s direction no doubt plays into Promised Land working so well, because he has an eye for revealing characters with their flaws, but not making them bad people. Promised Land doesn’t make judgments, it just shows you the people and lets you decide if they’re good or bad. I have to credit Van Sant for keeping things impartial, but I really do think most of that came from the script, which was written by Matt Damon and John Krasinski and based on a story by Dave Eggers.
Each character is so thoroughly detailed to the point of you completely recognizing why it is so important for them to continue to fight. Damon and McDormand’s characters are more than just the big and bad million dollar company reps. trying to wipe out a town and still Krasinski’s Dustin isn’t just an environmentalist that cares about the land. There’s so much going on behind the scenes and that slowly spills out onto the screen in time.
The trailers might suggest that Gus Van Sant‘s latest is a boring discussion on a hot topic, but the result is actually quite eye-opening. It grabs your attention early on and keeps you engaged without ever skipping a beat. Krasinski and Damon’s writing drive the film forward because of the characters they’ve created that are simply everyday men with common flaws. Both sides of the fight going on in the film are worth supporting in some manner and it’s refreshing not to see the filmmaker or the script take sides and go with one over the other.
Promised Land isn’t about picking sides or getting rich or even supporting your town. It’s about doing what you think is right, not because of what other people convince you on, but because of what you feel is right inside. At the end of the day the truth will always sit better than the lie, even if goes against everything you’ve been fighting for.
Promised Land – 8/10