The Stanly News and Press (Albemarle, NC)

February 9, 2013

Promised Land: Does It Live Up to the Film’s Promise?

Roger Thomas

Saturday, February 9, 2013 — I have been a fan of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck since they won the Oscar for “Good Will Hunting.” You remember their acceptance speech I am sure. They attempted and succeeded in copying the enthusiasm of Cuba Gooding Jr. from the year before. The difference was that Gooding won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for “Jerry Maguire” (1996) while Damon and Affleck, who were not as well know in 1997 as they are now, won their Oscars for Original Screenplay. When I say I have been their fan for sometime, I am not referring to their body of work as actors, though I enjoy most of that; I am referring to their efforts behind the cameras.

Damon and Affleck acted as producers on a small film I adore entitled “Stolen Summer;” one of the best films about faith I have ever seen. I have written before about how much I liked Affleck’s “Gone Baby Gone” that he wrote and directed. His film “Argo” is, in my opinion, the best film of the year. And after 15 years, Damon and Affleck’s screenplay for “Good Will Hunting” is funny, smart, moving and powerful no matter how many times you watch it. They are good actors, but they are great filmmakers.

Therefore I headed into “Promised Land” anxious to see the film that Matt Damon co-wrote with his co-star John Krasinski. (For the record, Kraninski’s greatest film is one of the best films ever made about parenting, “Away We Go;” a film directed by Sam Mendes, the same director who just made the most successful “James Bond” movie in franchise history.)

First, allow me to say “Promised Land” offers some beautiful scenery of farmland. Second, Damon, Kraninski, Frances McDormand and Rosemarie DeWitt are all good in their roles. Damon and McDormand walk the acting tightrope of being likeable even though their characters practice deception as a vocation. One wants to root for them because these two are so charming and yet what they do for a living is as dishonest as robbing banks. Perhaps the old farmer Frank Yates says it best to Damon’s character, “You’re a good man Steve, I just wish you weren’t doing this.” Hal Holbrook, who delivers the best performance of the film, plays Frank. (Holbrook was nominated and should have won the Oscar for “Into the Wild” in 2007.) Good performances and cinematography are important elements.

Gus Van Sant directed the film which is not one of his best. But with a canon that includes “Good Will Hunting,” “Finding Forrester,” “To Die For,” “Elephant,” “Paranoid Park,” and “Milk,” he has set a pretty high standard for himself. The film is not directed poorly, there is just little flare to this straightforward story of natural gas versus the environmentalists.

The screenplay has some strong moments. The film attempts to conquer an important subject, one that should be considered. The dialogue is informative, insightful and often witty. But in the end, the film falters in its climax. Looking back over the whole story, it just does not ring true. If the point of the film is to raise an issue, and offer arguments, it succeeds on some level. But if along with the message, the story is also supposed to succeed as a narrative, it stumbles and never recovers. I wish it were not so, but “Promised Land” does not hold up to the promises that a gifted cast, director and writers offer the viewer for much of the film.

During this review I have listed several films all of which are much better than “Promised Land.” Before you rush out to see it, think twice and rent “Good Will Hunting,” “Stolen Summer”,  “Gone Baby Gone,” “Into the Wild” or “Away We Go.” Any one of these is a film to remember. I doubt I will recall much about “Promised Land” in the days ahead.

Roger Thomas reviews films for The Stanly News & Press in print and online.