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Review: 'Promised Land' stands on shaky ground

By Michelle F. Solomon, Contributing writer
Published On: Jan 04 2013 05:05:01 PM CST
Promised Land, Matt Damon, John Krasinski

Focus Features

"Promised Land" is oversaturated in so many ways: oodles of back porch Americana with flags swaying in the wind, wide shots of beautiful green pastures and landscapes, and a lullaby soundtrack, especially the Simon & Garfunkel-esque The Milk Carton Kids, whose song, "Snake Eyes," swells at opportune moments (usually when there's soul searching to be done). At any moment, it wouldn't be surprising if a Norman Rockwell painting was rendered from such a perfect scene.

Gus Van Sant has always been an independent film director whose kitschy take on the universe is a breath of fresh air, but he's lost his bravado with this disappointing vehicle, written by Matt Damon and John ("The Office") Krasinski. Van Sant directed Damon in "Good Will Hunting," too.

In some ways, we've seen this ecological drama before ("Silkwood," "Erin Brockovich"). Stop me if you've heard this one: a powerful conglomerate comes into a small, suffering town with a promise of hope, and money, by buying up their land. But lurking under the surface is a poison that will turn everything sour. Therefore, the townsfolk have to decide if they'll choose to save their land or save themselves at the expense of the landscape. Then, someone (usually the person on the "wrong" side of the business) has an epiphany and decides that maybe money doesn't buy happiness. Oh, and there's usually a pretty, single hometown girl who makes the visiting drifter want to leave the big city and settle down.

And so goes "Promised Land." Matt Damon gets the showcase role here as Steve Butler, a corporate salesman for a natural gas company called Global whose latest assignment could land him a position in the executive offices. He's a wunderkind who uses his back story of being from a small Iowa farm town to make himself relatable to the citizens of McKinley, Pa., a rural town that's been a victim the volatile economy, especially for the American farmer. Butler's co-hort is Sue (Frances McDormand), a single mom who views her job as a means to make money to support her son, and nothing else.

The two high-powered corporate sales execs believe they have the town sold on their company's plan to begin drilling for natural gas, since every home and farm owner will get a nice chunk of change when all is said and done. But they meet with some unexpected resistance. First there's Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook), a science teacher with a pedigree background -- he graduated from MIT and worked for Boeing. And then there's Dustin Noble (Krasinski), a slick environmental activist who has his own personal story of his family farm's demise after taking Global's offer. He rolls into town armed with pictures of dead cows and charred land.

"Promised Land" talks a good game, just like its slick salesmen. Damon as Butler tells anyone who will listen, and more than a few times, that he's "really a good guy." McDormand spends much of her time as a sidekick, frustrated with her business associate's workaholism and ladder-climbing disposition. Krasinski's earnest, tree-hugging character is pure stereotype who spews melodramatic prose such as "You'll die in torment if you die with innocent blood on your soul." And Holbrook's lines about dying with dignity don't fare much better.

The pre-production of the film had its own fits and starts, including Damon's desire to direct it. The actor was unable to pull off the duties because he was filming "We Bought a Zoo" at the same time, so Van Sant was brought in. A shooting schedule had to be devised, too, that fit Holbrook's schedule as he still tours with his Mark Twain show.

Like the ground that's at the center of "Promised Land," this film's foundation is shaky. The movie lacks a required depth and has a feel that it's not fully realized. Dig deep and there's a good movie under there somewhere; it's just not here.