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Promised Land vs. Land of Promises
In this new release director Gus Van Sant and actor Matt Damon join forces again; continuing the relationship that began with "Good Will Hunting". The screenplay was written by Mr. Damon and John Krasinski (The Office) from a story by Dave Eggers.
Though Promised Land concerns itself with the issue of natural gas drilling, the film does not simply present the choice of to drill or not to drill. For the two "closers" representing a large natural gas company, Steve Butler (Matt Damon) and Sue Thompson ( Frances McDormand) , their arrival in the fictional small western Pennsylvania town of McKinley should be an easy few days encouraging the land owners to sign on the dotted line.
The situation becomes much more complicated for them when local residents, led by science teacher Frank Vance (Hal Holbrook), express their concerns about fracking and decide that they will wait and vote on whether or not to sell their property. The arrival of an "environmental presence" in the form of Dustin Noble (John Krasinski) further challenges Steve's trajectory as a rising star in the business of obtaining leases for his company. Steve is charming and affable and tries to convey a bond with these farmers and small town folk by insisting on wearing his grandfather's worn boots as a token of his connection to them.
Through scenes of rolling farmland and small town life and exchanges with local people, Steve's character begins to re-engage with his upbringing in an Iowa farm community which suffered irreparably from the loss of industry. He meets a greedy local politician, young couples anxious for their childrens’ future, farmers worn down by hard work and little to show for it, and people who are only too ready to lease their land.
One man in particular, though, brings the process down to a much closer level than Steve is comfortable with. He treats the deal as between the two of them; their handshake and the paper that he signs means that they are partners, that they are connected. Steve will be held to his promise.
When Frank Vance confronts Steve with the fact that his company has been sued by earlier leasees, Steve’s answer that no suit has yet been lost is a sleight-of-hand, implying that Global Crosspower Solution’s victories were fair and impartial. Global’s only concern is to seal the deal as quickly and economically as possible; it is not their concern to present pros and cons. The problem with making such promises is that people will take you at your word. Is being naïve and trusting something to take advantage of – should someone have to be educated in all of the variables and possibilities in order to make a decision that will determine their future? These are the questions that Promised Land raises.
Though much of the plot may be predictable, the acting is excellent, with wonderful performances by Damon, Frances McDormand, John Krasinski, Hal Holbrook and Rosemary DeWitt, and a nice plot twist adds to the action of the final scenes. Steve’s confrontation in a bar with three local men is a very powerful scene, in which he vents his frustration with them for not understanding what signing with the gas company will do to change their lives for the better. This scene adds dimension to his character and gives the film credit for portraying multiple perspectives on the issue of fracking, no matter how flawed any view may ultimately prove to be. The cracks in his armor of certainty widen after Alice, a grade school teacher, and Frank Vance share with him their reasons for staying on their land.
Rather than by shouting, Promised Land succeeds by quietly presenting a case for what we have always been taught to believe in as our American heritage - family values, tradition, ties to the land of our ancestors, and community. The biblical Promised Land was not precious because of any material value, but because it represented a homeland. The people of the small western Pennsylvania town in the film still believe in those promises, voiced by Hal Holbrooks's character who asks Steve where he and the others in the town will go after the company has leased their land. For him it's a losing proposition - what he holds dear will be gone forever in exchange for the company's money.
After being confronted with emotions that he had spent a long time trying to run away from, the spirit of Steve's grandfather is stronger than Steve had realized.
Review by Mary Ciarrocchi