Redemption stories are always risky to pull off. There’s no formula for how it’s going to be received by the general public, because – I think – we all take them at a slightly different angle. Well, you could say that if, in theory, a given movie refers to a problem of a reasonable significance, more people can statistically relate to it in a way, and due to that emotional response, the film could be received better. But for a good redemption film to be successful there is a collection of boxes to be ticked off. Otherwise it stinks of a cliché from a mile away… You would think that someone like Gus Van Sant would know how to do it right, right?
Wrong! (To quote Arnie in “Commando”) Gus Van Sant’s newest achievement, “Promised Land” can be described as anything, but a good redemption story. Before I say anything else, let me be clear here, it’s not a bad movie at all. It’s paced quite nicely and would make a solid rental, but it lacks too severely for me to consider it something more than just ‘an OK flick for a slow afternoon’. It misses the mark of being anything more, though, and after “Good Will Hunting” it was supposed to be the Van Sant’s Reunion with Matt Damon that would re-contextualize our way of thinking about some important problems.
In “Promised Land” we meet Steve Butler (Matt Damon) – a zealous salesman working for a company that deals with natural gas drilling. His job is to go to places of interest (i.e. underneath which the company thinks there lies a fortune in natural gas) and negotiate with the owners of the land, so as to acquire said land for drilling. What come naturally with it, are promises of shares in profits, loads of cash and development for the community. Whether they are lies or not is not the question here, but nevertheless we can’t help but ask ourselves that anyway.
As you might expect, Steve is no mere salesman; he’s the best. He’s so good at his job that the head-ups see him as ‘the ace up their sleeve’ and send him over to towns and communities that are the hardest to win over, and he always delivers. He has always managed to get what the company had wanted with minimal costs of the land purchase. So, what makes him so special? Oh, not much. He simply believes in what he does. He actually thinks he’s doing something good for the people he’s stealing from, because just like them he comes from a small farming town. And according to his knowledge it’s not the farming that’s responsible for the well-being of people, but the industry that most often hangs around nearby.
However, when he (and his assistant Sue, played by Frances McDormand) arrives in a town that is going to be his make-or-break within the company, things do not go to plan at all. The people seem reluctant and surprisingly well educated in the risks of drilling and, on top of that, Steve needs to face a mysterious environmental group represented by a young and vibrant Dustin Noble (John Krasinski), who seems to be hell-bent on pissing in Steve’s cornflakes. And the more he fights, the more stops he pulls, the more he seems to be losing his zeal and it looks like he’s no longer sure what he believes in…
“Promised Land” was most likely envisioned as a political commentary on the problem of gigantic corporations bullying regular small town people into surrendering their wealth – for the greater good of course. The film tries to show the dangers of rampant capitalism that supposedly is responsible for all the world’s ailments. It fails to do so, however, as “Promised Land” lacks the one thing that could carry its message into people’s heads – and that is a strong lead character.
Matt Damon really made an effort here, but in my humble view, his character lacks the charisma and the love-hate relationship we needed to develop with him was nowhere to be seen. Granted, he is a great actor, but his boyish charm did not carry the film and his metamorphosis came across as forceful and disingenuous.
In actuality, the whole film looked as if it was a bit divorced from reality with its obvious plot developments and character interactions. I don’t really know if it was planned from the get-go to make it look like a biblical-style tale with a moral at the end that is supposed to show me, how things are, but I can admit that it didn’t work for me. As I said before, a good redemption story needs to have certain qualities, like a strong character that forces the viewer to engage, or the subtle tone that leaves room to think. Here, the moral is so heavy-handed that “Promised Land” as a whole looks cheap and run-of-the-mill. In that, the long shots, close-ups, the depiction of the characters and the scenery is elevated to a cliché, simply due to the ponderous tone. It would seem that the trio Van Sant-Krasinsi-Damon wanted to make a political statement so much that they forgot to weave it into a compelling story. Regardless of the validity of the issue raised by the film, the reason it is never going to work is because it lacks subtlety in delivering the message and borders on propaganda. Still, “Promised Land” is a good enough movie to like, but it tries to be something it’s not… Sadly…