For a movie about the little guy fighting corporate greed, there’s not much fight in director Gus Van Sant’s Promised Land. No Erin Brockovich-style suffering among townsfolk, no knock-down-drag-out battles. In fact, there’s not a whole lot of conflict, period.
Throughout the proceedings we’re told by Steve Butler (Matt Damon), a representative from a $9 billion company called Global, that there’s tons at stake in this small town. He’s here to get the population of a small western Pennsylvania hamlet to turn over their land rights, so Global can move in and drill for natural gas. We’re led to think that people’s very livelihoods depend on it, and that millions of dollars hang in the balance.
Apparently, though, we’re just supposed to take his word for it.
Aside from the fact that everyone in town wears flannel shirts and trucker hats and drives pickup, we never get any sense of just how dire things are. The only voices of opposition to Global are a kindly old high school science teacher (Hal Holbrook) and an overly genial environmental activist named, natch, Dustin Noble (John Krasinski).
By the time you get to the (well, relatively) big finale, you may find yourself wondering what you missed; surely there’s got to be something here that justifies your sitting in a theater for two hours. Both sides of the land rights issue make coherent arguments, and there’s never any real sense of who the bad guy is.
To be fair, the performances are certainly solid; both Krasinski and Damon (who also co-wrote the script together, based on a Dave Eggers story) turn in fine work, and Frances McDormand (as Damon’s colleague) and Rosemarie Dewitt (as the only pretty girl in town) deliver, too.
Van Sant, though, comes up short, relying too much on the scenery and his top-flight cast, simply forgetting (or, for some reason, purposely ignoring) the story. As for that story– it starts out well, but somewhere along the line, Damon and Krasinski decided to play it safe, and the result is a script that quickly devolves into typical Hollywood morality tale.
There are plenty of beauty shots of western Pennsylvania, and the cast turns on their collective boundless charm while flashing aw-shucks smiles early and often, but when it comes down to it, there’s just not much movie in this movie.