Following two colossally disappointing movie-going experiences (The Master and Silver Linings Playbook), my wife and I decided to play it very safe.
We chose a movie that couldn’t possibly offend us or disappoint in any way. In fact, the bar was set pretty low on a film that looks very much like a studio-hyped quickie that opens up strong the first few weekends, gets yanked from theaters after a month, and then does straight to the obscurity of a DVD release. No doubt, this one will be out on Showtime by summer.
Promised Land is actually a better film than I expected. It’s sort of Matt Damon playing the role of Erin Brockovich — only in this case our hero works for a big bad corporation. Damon is cast as an advance man and rising business executive for huge energy conglomerate seeking to enter a small Pennsylvania town, pay off the local farmers to use their land, and then reap the rewards in natural gas production. His job is to get as many locals to sign contracts which allows the energy company to come in and start drilling.
Damon begins the film as a true believer in what he’s doing. He does a fine job in the undemanding role as corporate lackey. But the always-stellar Frances McDormand manages to steal every scene she’s in, as Damon’s hardworking assistant. Indeed, McDormand simply brings authenticity and credibility to everything she does — an instantly elevates the material. And here’s yet another shining example.
The trouble begins when Damon faces resistance on two fronts. Hal Holbrook, cast in the role he typically plays as the town’s elder all-knowing wise man, knows the risks of tuning the farm land over to an energy company. He manages to create quite a stir. But the real obstacle is a young and charismatic environmentalist who appears on the scene and out-works, out-hustles, and out-charms both Damon and McDormand.
This film does an excellent job of showing both sides of a valid argument in the timeless philosophical rivalry between two forces of nature — tradition and progress. For those expecting another Erin Brockovich, where the line between good and evil is black and white, they’ll ponder lots of gray in this movie. Even I found myself drawn in by Damon’s convincing arguments (on behalf of the energy company), at times.
Promised Land is not exactly unpredictable. We all know what’s ahead, especially for Damon who must face not only questions about what he’s doing, but confront even larger issues of about the propriety of his chosen profession. It’s a question many should ask themselves in our society.
What gives this film some added substance is how Damon ultimately arrives at his final decision. The ending won’t be revealed here. But there is a wonderfully unexpected turn of events towards the end of the story which is reminiscent of the cruel final twist that marked all the Alfred Hitchcock Presents classics. In other words, even cynical me never saw it coming — and neither will you.
There’s nothing about Promised Land that’s particularly original or memorable. That said, it’s a pretty good movie which delivered enough for me to give it my recommendation.
Sometimes, simply telling an old-fashioned morality tale in a straightforward way is the best way to reach the Promised Land.
RATING: SIX STARS OUT OF TEN