They say the road to movie hell is paved with good intentions, a sentiment that once again holds true with Promised Land, an unfailingly earnest heartland drama penned by Boston boys Matt Damon and John Krasinski. The former delivers another off-handedly excellent performance as a former farmboy turned puppet for natural gas companies, charged with selling the locals in go-nowhere rural communities on the financial benefits of fracking. The invaluable Frances McDormand co-stars as his partner in crime, and an early scene finds the two at a roadside clothing stop—owned by an always hilarious Titus Welliver—as they attempt to dress down and seduce the local yokels.
Unfortunately for this dynamic duo, Krasinski works for a muckracking environmental organization, and alas, he arrives in this specifically never-named Americana wearing a backwards baseball cap and douchebag cargo shorts, willing to sing Springsteen karaoke with the resident proletariat. There’s also science teacher played by Hal Holbrook (because of course he his) charged with delivering all too many statistical monologues at town hall meetings, most of which sadly take place in front of an American flag because this film is subtle.
Director Gus Van Sant tries to make the best of Damon and Krasinski’s sad-sack, issue-of-the-week screenplay, devoting far more time and energy than expected on this community’s easygoing, day-to-day life. He’s trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, affording broadly scripted caricatures an unforeseen level of respect, and his casual professionalism and camera expertise makes the movie feel better than it is for a very long time. But this game is lopsided from the get-go because Matt Damon is Matt Damon, and John Krasinski is John Krasinski. One’s the most sympathetic, unshowiest bona fide movie star we’ve got right now, and the other is some smug asshole from television who still can’t figure out how to shade a performance. The politics get all lopsided when you’re rooting for the guy from the gas company.
Better then not to mention a patently absurd third-act shocker of a plot twist, which drives Promised Land straight to movie hell and 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.