“Call a film about fracking in small-town America Promised Land and you not so subtly invite audiences to think of that ostensibly sacred stretch of Earth pledged by God, according to the Hebrew Bible, to the Israelites, a promise that’s been the justification for the oppression of Palestinians in the region for over a century. That association would be tacky if the land we now call the United States of America wasn’t also regarded long ago as a promised land by colonialists, who saw the new world as their manifest destiny. Gus Van Sant’s new film certainly offends, but it’s not for how it tritely pays lip service to the knotty ideas of land rights, heritage, and tradition implicit in its title, but for how it views the struggles of the landowners at the heart of its story as subservient to their oppressor’s triumph of the spirit.” And with that, from Ed Gonzalez in Slant, we’re off.
“Collaborating on a screenplay for director Gus Van Sant for the third time, after Good Will Hunting and Gerry, Matt Damon stars as a natural gas company rep who encounters more resistance than he bargained for when trying to buy up drilling rights on struggling farmers’ land,” explains Todd McCarthy in the Hollywood Reporter. “This is something of a Frank Capra story preoccupied with the idea of what the United States used to be or is supposed to be, but the film isn’t quite rich or full-bodied enough to entirely pay off.”
Variety‘s Justin Chang finds Promised Land to be a “quietly absorbing if finally somewhat dubious drama… Set to open Dec. 28 for a weeklong awards-qualifying run before it opens wider in January, the Focus Features release has already come under attack by representatives of the energy corporations it critiques. Some of the film’s early detractors (few of whom are likely to have seen it yet) have pointed out that it was partly funded by Image Nation Abu Dhabi, the implication being that the United Arab Emirates, the world’s third largest oil exporter and a recent backer of several Hollywood pics, may have a vested interest in suppressing U.S. gas production. The nature of Damon’s personal investment in the project is less mysterious, given his own extensive environmental advocacy.” Promised Land is “an intriguing extended collaboration between the actor and John Krasinski, who also co-wrote, co-starred and co-produced. Together they have crafted a sturdy, conventional drama of conscience that acknowledges the current era of economic uncertainty, suggesting a non-thriller version of Michael Clayton, or perhaps Erin Brockovich as told from a sympathetic villain’s perspective. Either way, for a movie so soberly attuned to environmental ethics and scientific minutiae, it’s less dry than one would expect.”
It’s “a substantial step forward in terms of thematic complexity for Van Sant after the amateurish Restless,” finds Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn. “Tackling a decidedly old-fashioned story by Dave Eggers, Van Sant’s straightforward direction makes up for a lack of narrative mastery by focusing on character depth rather than complex filmmaking trickery.”
For the Playlist‘s Rodrigo Perez, Promised Land suggests “a more dramatic Local Hero—a 1983 comedy about a rich texas oilman who sends in a team to buy an entire Scottish village—and”—again!—”a much more dialed down and muted Frank Capra film.”
Perhaps in the spirit of the season, Amanda Mae Meyncke gives Promised Land an A- at Film.com.
Update, 12/9: Drew Taylor talks with Damon for the Playlist.
Update, 12/15: “Van Sant doesn’t push the film’s conclusions into more complex political territory (i.e. posing other solutions, such as green jobs),” notes Andrew Schenker, “but by treating the generally overlooked people most effected by top-down decision making as not only viable individuals but as people whose voices need to be heard, whose complex needs must be balanced, the movie allows for the honest possibility of democratic triumph over corporate interest—at least in this one isolated instance.”
Updates, 12/30: “Unlike countless other movies that have trod the same path—big business vs. working class, city vs. country, economic concerns vs. ecological awareness—Promised Land is grounded in an admirable frankness about money and its importance in the lives of all concerned parties,” writes Kent Jones for Film Comment. There’s “a plot twist involving Krasinski’s militant environmentalist that throws the movie for a loop; it feels at once broadly insightful on Eggers’ part and perhaps a little too tricky for the movie to bear. Yet it does nothing to lessen the moral and emotional refinement of this film.”
The Philadelphia Weekly‘s Sean Burns disagrees, arguing that the twist “reeks of unseasoned screenwriters who didn’t trust their material. It’s jaw-droppingly stupid and illogical, negating what little goodwill we were able to hunt for here before.”
Rosemarie DeWitt plays “the pretty schoolteacher that every small town in a movie like this one must have,” notes A.O. Scott in the New York Times. “It also needs a wise, almost magical geezer (that is [Hal] Holbrook’s job); semi-sleazy public officials; sassy waitresses; and a lot of guys in plaid flannel shirts and trucker hats. But the nice thing about this movie is that it spends most of its running time wandering away from its native clichés, rather than wallowing in them.”
“Movies like Promised Land sometimes make me ashamed to be a liberal,” writes Bilge Ebiri at Vulture. This one “wants to make the personal political and vice versa, to use its protagonist’s indecision and lack of identity to make a broader point about the corporate, “just doing my job” ethos. But it collapses on all fronts, delivering hot-button platitudes and just-add-water character development.”
For Ray Pride, writing at Newcity Film, “the story lacks every moment of savagery this subject deserves. The subject is distant preamble to Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. Promised Land is our world as anecdote, not drama. You could think back to the poisoned water of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, or for an assertive, acerbic, provocative contemporary perspective, check out Josh Fox’s confrontational advocacy documentary, Gasland.”
Update, 1/5: Vulture‘s Kyle Buchanan interviews Krasinski.