Gus Van Sant's eco-drama is fundamentally likeable but shies away from deeper issues
Director Gus Van Sant is no stranger to tackling challenging subject matter, be it school shootings (Elephant), gay rights (Milk) or critically derided remakes (Psycho). His latest effort takes on the controversial gas-mining process fracking, with a little help from stars/writers John Krasinski and Matt Damon (whose script arose from a story by Dave Eggers).
Our protagonists are small-town-boy-turned-corporate-stooge Steve (Damon) and his partner in crime Sue (Frances McDormand). They're a charismatic pair with likeable patter who arrive in a small Pennsylvania town to purchase drilling rights from the largely poor farming community. They proceed to charm the pants off everyone they meet, including the audience - bad guys have ever looked so good. Among the few questioning their wisdom is science teacher Frank (Hal Holbrook), who challenges the safety of the gas extraction process, and newly-arrived environmental activist Dustin (Krasinski).
Considering its unglamorous subject matter, Promised Land is surprisingly witty and charming, and McDormand is superb. Aesthetically it boasts an almost tangible freshness, effectively sullied by the subject matter. Yet some characters are thinly drawn (Rosemarie DeWitt's love interest Alice) and Damon's Steve is just plain baffling. He's supposed to be contrary but seems improbably naïve and his wavering morality rankles - can his inner turmoil really ring true when he actively chooses to sell people short? After initially being established as the town's key objector, Frank just seems to evaporate away, occasionally re-emerging to impart some twinkly eyed wisdom.
Promised Land is an earnest, fundamentally likeable film which challenges us to question what we're told rather than calling us to arms. Nevertheless, it's hard to shake a niggling feeling that by shying away from an in-depth investigation of the issue, Van Sant and co have missed an opportunity.