Gus Van Sant’s latest movie, based on a screenplay by co-stars Matt Damon and John Krasinski, may just be the mildest salsa I’ve ever had. It’s there, alright. You can see the tomato chunks and everything. It won’t screw up your nacho. But it lacks anything even remotely resembling a kick. Promised Land’s biggest boot to the head won’t knock you on your ass, it’ll just make you look around for an open window because a light breeze must have just entered the room. I have other metaphors as well, but we’re just going to move along now.
There’s a neat premise in Promised Land, and by that I do not mean that there’s a small town fighting a heartless corporate takeover, and that it espouses traditional “American” values – as if there’s only one acceptable kind – over big city folks who think they know better. The gag, not that it’s funny or anything, is that the film is about the heartless corporate bastard trying to take everyone’s land, not the hometown heroes fighting the oppressors. Matt Damon stars as Steve Butler, and he’s trying to buy up all the property in Anytown, USA for fracking purposes. As in, the actual textbook definition of fracking: burrowing underground for natural gas. Not the “Battlestar Galactica” definition, although the protestors trying to stop Steve would probably be willing to go along with the profanity version.
Steve, as you can imagine, has a valuable lesson to learn, but to the screenwriters’ credit they don’t treat his arc as a typical Christmas Carol knockoff, where he’s this bad guy who just needs to remember what he used to be like and get to know his victims in order to turn his life around. That’s exactly what happens, of course, but that’s not how it’s treated. Under the subtle directorial guidance of Gus Van Sant, who previously directed the Matt Damon-co-scribed features Good Will Hunting and Gerry, Promised Land plays as an understated character study even during all the familiar beats where most studio movies covering the exact same ground would have laid on the schmaltz.
You have to respect Gus Van Sant & Co. for not taking the easy way out here, but at the same time, you also have to wonder if tackling such melodramatic material without really selling it for all the message movie hooey it’s worth was really such a wise move. They’ve already subverted the formula by making Mr. Smith Goes to Washington all about the Claude Rains character. Did they really need to, as Matt Damon put it himself, turn it into an Elia Kazan riff as well? By focusing on the character drama in a film that otherwise follows a rigidly codified underdog structure, Promised Land winds up underplaying all the crowd-pleasing moments inherent to the still-effective genre. Surprise, surprise, the result could be a little more pleasing.
Contrast Promised Land to another film that plays the same game, P.J. Hogan’s My Best Friend’s Wedding. It may not seem like the obvious comparison, but that Julia Roberts vehicle actually works on its own as a straightforward genre movie – in that case, a romantic comedy – despite focusing entirely on a character who, in any other version of the exact same story, would have been the antagonist. My Best Friend’s wedding goes through all the familiar motions of a romantic comedy, right down to the satisfying conclusion where love conquers all, but adds just a twinge of melancholy by encouraging audience sympathy for the kind of homewrecking character most other films would go out of their way to demonize. That kind of humanity is present in Promised Land’s treatment of Steve, its misguided protagonist, but in this case the melancholy has been ratcheted to unnecessary levels, preventing the movie from reaching a satisfying finale even though, strictly speaking, it kind of gets one anyway. It’s all the circumstance and none of the pomp, leaving Promised Land feeling more like a failed genre exercise than the serious and meaningful drama that Van Sant & Co. apparently wanted to make.
Promised Land isn’t a bad movie: it’s too well acted for that, and it has a really clever twist at one point for which the writers deserve a lot of credit. But I suspect they also stared so hard at this by-the-numbers storyline that they wound up with an entirely different kind of math altogether. It’s an experiment with an intriguing hypothesis that just didn’t yield the kind of results they were looking for. I’m not sure whom I can recommend this movie to. Screenwriting majors, certainly, but casual audiences will either be turned off by its downer interpretation of otherwise feel-good material, or simply disappointed that a clearly well-intentioned character drama hewed so closely to familiar genre conventions. Either way, I guess Promised Land never really makes good on its promises.