Matt Damon can do no wrong, despite his disappointing turn as a morally ambivalent salesman in "Promised Land." Directed by Gus Van Sant, who also directed Damon in "Good Will Hunting," "Promised Land" is about the perils of small-town life. Steve Butler (Damon), a successful sales rep for a natural gas corporation, is tasked with coaxing people in a rural town to sign over their land. At first, Steve and his partner Sue (Frances McDormand) are able to sell the community a new and presumably, better way of life.
However, the two encounter resistance from a high school teacher named Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook). Not only must Steve downplay Frank's claims that natural gas does more harm than good, he must also prevent an arrogant environmentalist named Dustin Noble (John Krasinski) from changing people's minds.
With such an esteemed cast and director, I wanted to love this movie. However, the script makes it impossible to become invested in this rural town, its people and Steve's cause.
The script, which was co-written by Damon and Krasinski, is full of moral questions, including how far a person is prepared to go to achieve a desired outcome. Often times, the answer to this question comes down to the right price, which is why with the exception of Frank and Sue, the characters aren't likeable. The character of Alice, played by Rosemarie DeWitt, is unnecessary to say the least. She's merely there to act as love interest for Damon's Steve and possesses no other facets.
Dustin is better suited as frat guy than a well-informed environmentalist, while Steve walks a fine line between charming cynic and lying snake. Scoot McNairy, whose roles in this year's "Argo" and "Killing Them Softly" garnered attention from critics, has a small role in the film as a contemptuous farm owner named Jeff Dennon. McNairy's performance is far more authentic than Krasinski and Damon's.
The movie's brisk pacing and occasional funny moments make up for some of the script's smaller flaws. The surprise ending, however, seems like more of a ploy than a well thought out plot twist. Rather, it's presented so that it makes it easier for Steve to solve his moral dilemma. For two of the most intelligent actors, "Promised Land's" ending is just shoddy storytelling. With so many better, more complex films to see before the Oscars, I'd recommend putting "Promised Land" on the backburner until it comes out on DVD.
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