With “Good Will Hunting,” Matt Damon adhered to the writers’ credo of sticking with what you know. But with his latest script, the anti-fracking tale “Promised Land,” he ventures far beyond his New England comfort zone. He also for the first time is opting not to collaborate with someone not named Affleck, teaming instead with Newton native John Krasinski. And while it’s admirable that Damon is so keen on expanding his horizons, the result is a frackin’ mess.
No doubt he and his “Office” boy Krasinski, have good intentions, looking to use their clout to get the message out about a geological practice that poisons soil, water and people’s minds. But like fracking, the injection of undisclosed chemicals into shale to force natural gas to the surface, the way they go about it is a bit dubious. It’s also frequently condescending toward the money-strapped Midwestern agrarians they’re attempting to champion.
I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I suggest that neither Damon nor Krasinski, who also play the film’s leads, have ever set foot in Iowa or Nebraska, the states they viciously patronize. In their eyes, the residents there are gullible, unworldly and ripe for the taking by corporate shills like Damon’s Steve Butler and Frances McDormand’s Sue Thomason, both of whom display about as much respect for the locals as do our intrepid writers.
But then, “Promised Land” isn’t really about the “people,” it’s about those two shills and the pangs of conscience that gnaw at them. They know they’re sleazes, but, darn, they feel a little bit bad about it. It’s sort of like Don Rumsfeld saying enhanced interrogation is unfortunate, but necessary. And for that, we’re asked to rally behind Steve and Sue because, you know, they’re just doing their jobs.
That’s asking a lot, especially when Damon and Krasinski have written both parts so small. There’s no depth or soul to either one, although both actors do wonders making something out of nothing. But as good as they are, they struggle to overcome the utter lack of chemistry they share.
Damon and Krasinski also can’t decide if they want to paint Steve and Sue as straight villains or flawed heroes who are merely unwitting victims of the “Man.” Same goes for Krasinski’s (get this name) Dustin Noble, a passive-aggressive environmental activist who is a tad too amiable to be taken seriously.
So what we’re left with is no one to root for, not even the farmers, teachers and the other rubes who are being taken advantage of. You see, they’re mostly greedy slugs who just want their share.
The exceptions are Hal Holbrook (Hollywood’s go-to guy for dispensing great wisdom), playing (in his sleep) a retired, MIT-trained geography teacher wise to the evils of fracking, and Rosemarie DeWitt, a gorgeous schoolmarm, who just happens to be available for Steve and Dustin to fight over in an epic battle of good boy-bad boy morality. Me, I was rooting for her to give them both the boot.
As for the rest of the townsfolk, they’re either drunks, like Lucas Black’s trailer park dweller, or corrupt politicians like Ken Strunk’s Mayor Richards, who is only looking for a bribe.
In fact, there’s no end to the rampant stereotyping, which only adds to the film’s thick vain of cynicism, a mood and an attitude that reaches its nadir with a ridiculous third-act twist that’s so amateurish in its execution, you can’t help but laugh.
Why Gus Van Zant (“Good Will Hunting,” “Milk”) agreed to helm this slog is a mystery, but clearly, judging by his unimaginative direction, his heart is never in it. At least the production values are top notch, with Western Pennsylvania filling in adequately for the Iowa plains.
But the script is stupefying, little more than a vanity project for its two writers, who obviously believe it’s enough to coast on their infinite charm and charisma. And for a while, they succeed.
But after the 13th joke about how short the equines are in Iowa (apparently neither Steve nor Sue have seen a miniature horse) and a heap of postulating by Holbrook aimed at making Steve see the error of his ways, you simply stop caring.
Worst of all, the film never makes a convincing argument against fracking, probably because it’s too busy being cloying, or at least it is when it’s not flagrantly insulting our intelligence by talking down to us.
It also offers nothing that wasn’t already well covered in Josh Fox’s 2010 Oscar-nominated documentary, “GasLand,” which shockingly showed how people who’ve allowed their property to be fracked end up drinking combustible water. There’s no such fire emanating from “Promised Land,” just harmless sparks. And that’s a frackin’ shame.
PROMISED LAND (R for language.) Cast includes Matt Damon, John Krasinski, Frances McDormand, Rosemarie DeWitt and Hal Holbrook. Directed by Gus Van Zant. Grade: C