PROMISED LAND, a writing collaboration between Matt Damon and John Krasinski (THE OFFICE) based on a story by Dave Eggers, was to be the directorial debut for Damon, until he found himself too exhausted to carry it out when pre-production rolled around. Instead, he contacted his old pal, Gus Van Sant, who stepped in as a work-for-hire. It shows.
A well-intentioned, nicely acted yet somewhat preachy and vanilla film (Yep, I’m gonna go for the easy pun here and call it PROMISED BLAND), it feels relevant to our economically troubled times without ever achieving a good dramatic boil. Enter Damon and Frances McDormand, two corporate closers shipped into a small farming community to buy out the land. Frakking’s on their mind, wherein their company will drill for oil in an ecologically questionable fashion. Everyone seems to be excited about the financial prospects of the deal, until Hal Holbrook challenges our dynamic duo, further bolstered by a young and mysterious environmentalist (Krasinski) who tries to galvanize the townfolk in the opposite direction.
It’s a lightly comedic, yet fairly passionate look at the dilemma so many honest workers face in this country right now. Do they hang onto their pride of working the land handed down to them for generations, or do they see the writing on the wall and sell out? I truly enjoyed watching Damon struggle with his conscience while McDormand remains steadfast in declaring that she’s just punching a clock to do her job. Damon has one electrifying scene when he faces off against a group of farmers, and his speech resonated with me long after the film ended. He also nicely underplays the big “11th Hour” moment. As his career progresses, he’s become a wonderful character actor. All told, it’s a fairly astute snapshot our economic condition.
Van Sant tries his best to put his stamp on the proceedings, with unexpected music choices (no obvious country music pandering) and his usual lovely driving shots, but most of the scenes consist of quiet conversations in hazily-lit farmhouses. There’s a low-key heartland vibe to everything. It’s the HOOSIERS of Issue-driven films.
The main conflict resides between Damon and Krasinski, and their sparring never reaches any great dramatic heights. It feels like two frat boys telling “Yo’ Mamma” jokes over a few beers, instead of the high stakes at play. Their performances aren’t bad, in fact, Damon is immensely appealing and highly skilled at making you somehow root for his corporate wonk. Holbrook is solid, much in the same way he was in INTO THE WILD, capping off a great career with his gentle wisdom. A nice surprise is Titus Welliver, typically cast in villain roles, as McDormand’s romantic interest. It’s a small but memorable role of a storekeeper, but it unfortunately never really goes anywhere. Lucas Black (the little kid from SLING BLADE all grown up), could have dialed back the cornpone a tad. He’s straight out of HEE HAW. McDormand, however, runs away with the picture in a performance that never once hits a false note. In fact, has she ever in her entire career? This woman cannot help but open up a can of “REAL” on any film she touches.
Linus Sandgren, a Swedish cinematographer fairly new to American cinema, brings a nice, real touch, especially in a rainsoaked, poorly-planned town fair. He and Production Designer Daniel B. Clancy never condescend in their choices, giving us a Midwest that actually feels like the Midwest. I’m sure Van Sant misses the great D.P., Harris Savides, who sadly passed away in October, and was his frequent collaborator, but Sandgren certainly establishes himself as one to watch, despite the limited opportunities for an original artistic achievement here.
Staying true to its Midwest aesthetic, PROMISED LAND exposes some dark truths about this country yet often pulls its punches. Instead of a hard-hitting film, we’re given a light slap. It’s a good, not great, film that’s as workmanlike as its subject matter.
Glenn Gaylord is an award-winning Writer/Director/Producer and graduate of the UCLA School of Film and Television.