Saturday, January 5, 2013

Promised Land

As I start my fifth year of movie blogging, I plan to write at least a paragraph, more if the spirit movies, on each movie I see in theaters in 2013, and I will start with 2012 late releases. (If I had done that last year, I would have about 86 posts for 2012, a lot more than the 31 posts I wrote.) Yeah, sometimes less is more, but at least I can maintain a literal "web log" of my year at the movies, which I do anyway as a personal document.

1. Promised Land (2012)

When Steve Butler (Matt Damon) and Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand) come to a small farming community in Pennsylvania to offer farmers a way out of the economic slump by leasing drilling rights for natural gas-producing shale, they encounter a very predictable cast of characters: the poor single mother who wants a future for her son; the uppity rednecks who see Steve as a big-city jerk; the unmarried teacher (Rosemarie DeWitt) who seems casually unconcerned about environmental side effects and sees Steve as a possible partner; the crotchety old science teacher (nicely played by Hal Holbrook) who knows all about the dangerous side effects; and the crusading environmentalist (John Krasinski), aptly named Dustin Noble.

The only thing out of whack is that Matt Damon is playing a sort of jerk, pushing his way up the corporate ladder by buying rights cheaply and dismissing worries of the environmental effects. Indeed, Damon seems uncomfortable playing the zealous corporate agent; he almost doesn’t know how to stand. Nevertheless, he provides presence, as he always can do in the weakest of films, and he bolsters up this simplistic story that lacks sufficient conflict and tension. McDormand is wooden; DeWitt constantly plays the laid-back, whimsical “I-know-the-truth” smirk.

Director Gus Van Sant frames some lovely atmospheric shots of smalltown America as well as some wonderful aerial shots that take in the whole beleaguered town. Finally, (SPOILER) we get a plot twist that turns Steve into the “Noble” character and allows you to breathe a sigh of relief as Damon assumes the wholesome, good-guy persona we expect from him and which he does so well.


Jason Bellamy said...

I came away not quite understanding what Matt Damon's character knows and doesn't know. In the least, he knows that most of the people who agree to have their land drilled probably won't get any big paydays; they'll just get their original signing bonus. He also knows that environmental groups will oppose him, which I think means that he realizes there is at least some kind of real environmental risk. But ... (SPOILERS) when he has his big awakening he seems truly shocked to learn the potential extent of the danger, as if he always assumed that the environmentalists were operating on the fringe, the worst case scenario, disasters that were the result of substandard operations. Maybe that's poor character development, or maybe he's supposed to be lurking that gray area. I'm not sure.

But ... what I do like is the suggestion that Damon's character knows he's manipulating these people but, from the start, seems to sincerely believe that rolling the dice for a big payday is in these people's best interest. The "fuck you money" scene is well written and exposes that; and that conflict is also felt later on in the scene at Hal Holbrook's character's home.

From that perspective, Damon's character is indeed only a sort-of jerk, and doesn't make all that big of a character metamorphosis. He just sees the light and has the integrity to do the right thing. If that sounds like a criticism, it isn't. Without making it sound like this movie is "believable," Damon's character's transition to a "good guy" is indeed believable, because he was never THAT far away from a good guy to start with. What isn't believable, however, is that such a smart, savvy guy could ever be so ignorant in the first place.

Hokahey said...

Yes, Butler seems to be uninformed about certain things he should know about. Also, can't he just Google the name of the sham environmental group that Krasinski's character is representing? Yeah, they might have a fake website, but there wouldn't be a lot of other references to it on the internet - or is it easy to plaster the internet with fake sites and references?

Also, I agree that Butler is not a complete jerk. Still, there is a salesman's ruthlessness about him that Damon seems to be a little uncomfortable portraying. When Butler does the right thing, it almost feels like Damon settles more comfortably into the role.