Matt Damon and “Promised Land” – One of the Year’s Finest Films

Review: “Promised Land” Decent People and Corporate Dirty Tricks
by Larry Murray

Promised Land (2012) Focus Features, Gus Van Sant director, with Matt Damon, John Krasinski and Frances McDormand, (r)

Matt Damon got an early shot at acting on the screen as an extra, playing a Red Sox fan in Field of Dreams. I haven’t gone back to see if I could pick him out in the crowd at Fenway Park, but visibility has never been a problem for the Cambridge, MA actor since Good Will Hunting. It put him on the map with an armful of awards that he and Ben Affleck shared for that film, both as actors and screenwriters.

Damon is the thinking man’s actor, and a political being, and his broad world view informs his personal creative work. An Über talented multi-tasker, Damon is also an inveterate collaborator, able to set aside ego to ferret out the best creative solutions to an artistic challenge.

Matt Damon (l) and John Krasinski wrote and acted in the film, Promised Land..

Matt Damon (l) and John Krasinski wrote the script and star in the Gus Van Sant film, Promised Land..

It is no surprise that his latest partner for the film Promised Land is another Massachusetts native John Krasinski from Newton, who co-wrote, co-produced and co-stars in Promised Land. They play the two human sides of the ongoing natural gas debate over fracking.

Damon’s new partnership developed when Damon worked with Emily Blunt, Krazinski’s wife, on The Adjustment Bureau. He and his wife Luciana hit it off with the Krazinski’s and soon the two writers and actors found themselves drawn to the film’s contrast of an overwhelmingly large corporation with billions having its way with the struggling residents of rural town left high and dry by the industrialization of farming and the decline of factory jobs. Sort of like parts of the Berkshires.

Matt Damon

Matt Damon

Matt Damon describes the film as “a relatable story with characters we all can recognize as people we know.”

“It’s an emotional story about what happens when real people and real money collide, and the surprising ways people respond when momentous decisions come their way,” says Krasinski.

They both accurately capture the film’s essence. The dramatic tension they instill into the film is about average people vs.the rich and powerful. To say more would be revealing the corporate dirty tricks that provide much of the film’s impact. No spoilers here.

Frances McDormand (l) and Matt Damon (r) work for the energy company.

Frances McDormand (l) and Matt Damon (r) work for the energy company.

Damon plays Steve Butler, a top corporate salesman sent into the hinterlands to convince people to give his company drilling and extraction rights on their land. The company has targeted a small rural town for its expansion, and he arrives there with his partner Sue Thompson (a witty Frances McDormand).

Hal Holbrook.

Hal Holbrook.

First they encounter a respected schoolteacher (Hal Holbrook, raised in South Weymouth) and then environmentalist Dustin Noble (John Krasinski) and find the pickings come easy at first, until the truth begins to spread.

The film has several dramatic elements going for it, not the least of which is the mutual attraction both men have for schoolteacher Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt), and Damon’s bloody nose for telling locals what they didn’t want to hear.

The film itself, brilliantly directed by Gus Van Sant, is one of the best of 2012, yet has riled up the natural gas industry for even discussing the possible downsides of fracking – essential to the story – and they have responded as large bullying businesses always do by spreading disinformation and trying to suppress the public’s interest in the film by calling it political and posting rebuttals. The film is fictional, but they treat it as fact. And of course, Fox is outraged as you can see in this clip.

But as any reasonably well informed moviegoer knows, extraction of gas, oil or coal is a dirty business, and an essential one if America is to maintain its bottomless energy gobbling habits.

Matt Damon rides into town.

Matt Damon rides into town.

The film does not deal with these problems other than superficially, since its real story is about the people caught up in the controversy. Honest, hardworking, and welcoming, they welcome the coming bonanza of drilling rights as a way for their community to survive, and their way of life to continue uninterrupted. With town meetings, informal gatherings in the local tavern and a town fair, the members of the community work towards a solution and final vote. There is a twin MacGuffin ending, somewhat implausible to some – but for anyone familiar with corporate dirty tricks – not that far-fetched. I bought it.

Matt Damon continues to amaze me as one of the most understated, and finest actors in Hollywood today. His line readings are so natural, so conversational, it is hard to believe this is a movie made with actors. He has worked with Gus Van Sant before, of course, on Good Will Hunting, and the two have a way of making the thrust of the film seem almost spontaneous.

As his foil, Frances McDormand is equally taciturn, letting her expertise at driving a stick-shift pick-up with a finicky starter wedge in her partner’s craw.

This is certainly the year for Rosemarie DeWitt as the love interest, she is an actor whose offbeat humor and appealing openness is so convinving that you just want to sit down and get to know her better.

Then there is Hal Holbrook, looking every bit of 87, but still an amazing actor to watch on the screen. He is also very brave to allow all of his age to show, and trust me it does.

In the film, Damon is convinced that he is doing the small town a great good by offering the struggling residents enough money to survive a little longer in a changing America. But in a moment with teacher Hal Holbrook you might call an epiphany, the wise old teacher suggests that the money might also be enough to allow folks to leave the farms that are all they know. Instead of saving the town, the money would destroy what is left of it. Damon left his town for brighter prospects, and so will others. To underscore the point, there’s a scene where an early recipient blows his cash on a new car and plans to head for the big city.

Slated to open in the coming days, Promised Land is ultimately a simple, well written film with no easy answers. Instead it is absorbing, uplifting, and proof that in the world of entertainment some still have their finger on the pulse of America.

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