Gus Van Sant must really be out of imagination (or horniness) to make the drab, politically slanted Promised Land. That’s two phony films in a row for Gus, following the 2010 Restless. Promised Land takes on the fracking controversy about drilling for gas in underground shale deposits, using Gus’ Good Will Hunting star Matt Damon as a gas company stooge trying to trick Pennsylvania farmers into leasing their land. As an exposé of the fashionable dilemma, the film is unconvincing politically and fraudulently sentimental about the average American’s skeptical response to technological progress.
When Damon, as corporate shill Steve Butler, tries hoodwinking rural folk (“‘Fuck you money’ is the ultimate liberator” he tells a landowner), his dishonesty recalls George Clooney’s self-pity in Up in the Air. Damon’s a shrewder actor, so he eschews Clooney’s false empathy and portrays a man who corrupts the American Dream while refusing to lose the American rat race. This frick-or-frack quandary turns Promised Land into a reverse-Capra movie in which the little people convert the bad protagonist—reviving his buried good instincts.
But Steve’s transformation is half-ass; his heart isn’t in the job anyway, only his contempt—the phony common-folk stance the Environmental Left prefers. In Promised Land, the anti-fracking controversy seems to be about class superiority as much as about the environment.
Van Sant, Damon and co-screenwriter, co-producer and co-star John Krasinski (portraying Dustin Noble, an antagonistic environmentalist) pretend that political position is more important than complicated truth. Using pretzeled logic, these filmmakers twist their story into unbelievable shapes to make the self-righteous point that Americans’ greed outweighs their truest values. Easy for millionaire filmmakers to say.
The love triangle between Steve, Dustin and local schoolteacher Alice (Rosemarie Dewitt) lacks the gay sexual tension typical of Van Sant; this is just a propagandistic gimmick relying on the sentimentality of white-picket-fence heterosexual normalcy. (You can hear sheep bleating behind Steve’s confidence game, and an American flag is used as backdrop.) Van Sant, Damon and Krasinski present what amounts to anti-fracking propaganda without deciding which side they are on. It’s as if the industrial revolution—and unbiased cinema—never happened.
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