FILM REVIEW: Promised Land (15)

Director Gus Van Sant and actor Matt Damon share a rich creative history.

In 1997, they made the inspirational Good Will Hunting, which was nominated for nine Oscars and gifted one golden statuette to Damon and Ben Affleck for Best Original Screenplay.

Five years later, Damon and Van Sant reunited for Gerry, a semi-improvised tale of friendship in the desert co-starring another member of the Affleck clan, Casey.

So this third collaboration is buoyed by high expectations.

Promised Land doesn’t quite meet them.

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Written by Damon and co-star John Krasinski, this well-intentioned drama has a big heart that beats loudly in all of the right places.

Their script lays out arguments for and against - most against- the controversial practice of fracking, which extracts natural gas from shale rock formations.

Cold, hard facts and figures are ultimately obscured by the film’s sentimentality and a predictable battle between conscience and commerce that will face communities across America as big corporations offer silly money for drilling rights.

In Promised Land, the man with the fat cheque book is Steve Butler (Matt Damon), who travels from town to town with colleague Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand) persuading cash-strapped communities to sign lucrative leases that grant their energy company, Global Crosspower Solutions, the right to drill for natural gas.

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Having grown up in a small Iowa farming community, which sold its land rights to survive, Steve is a fervent advocate for the cause.

He offers persuasive arguments and has an excellent track record for getting landowners to sign on the dotted line.

Steve expects a quick turnaround in his next target, the close-knit Pennsylvania farming town of McKinley.

“What kind of money are you talking about?” asks one resident excitedly.

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“You could be a millionaire,” smiles Steve, contract and pen at the ready.

Residents elect to put the GCS proposal to a public vote and Steve feels confident these hard-working people will respond favourably to his terms.

Then beloved high school teacher Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook) and a vociferous out-of-town environmentalist Dustin Noble (John Krasinski) cast doubts on the safety of fracking, and spearhead a campaign to drive GCS out of McKinley.

Promised Land is certainly timely.

News headlines are festooned with arguments and counter-arguments about fracking and Van Sant’s film ultimately tips its hat in favour of the naysayers.

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Damon uses his natural likeability to tether us emotionally to Steve, who is essentially the villain of the piece.

We root for him to see the anti-fracking light and hopefully beat smug Dustin in the affections of pretty schoolteacher Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt).

The means to this end is a clumsy, contrived final 20 minutes replete with a plot twist, full of grandstand speeches that trade raw passion for sincerity.

The film means well, it just doesn’t stir the soul.


Released: April 19 (UK & Ireland), 107 mins

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