One of the more schizoid of American directors around, Gus Van Zant has built up a filmography of both rent-paying commercial firepower and provocative indie films. His first claim to fame, lest we forget, was the woozy wonder Drugstore Cowboy. If only Van Sant called more upon his indie film muse for his latest effort, Promised Land might have risen to a higher artistic occasion. As it is, the well-meaning but middling and muddling film is a long slide into sentimental, formulaic anti-corporate shtick, and Matt Damon’s modest skills as an actor send us out of the theater in a fog of disappointment, hoping Van Sant gets back in the art-house saddle again soon.
On the upside, however — and it’s a big upside — Promised Land is the first major motion picture to bring the pressing issue of the land-and-water-sucking business of fracking into the general public forum of the multiplex. Damon and Frances McDormand (who has a habit of handily upstaging her onscreen comrade in each two-shot) play field reps for a mega-powerful oil company eager to swoop into a small Pennsylvania town and secure fracking rights, while promising top dollar to the impoverished farmers and wooing with civic dividends. Damon’s character, originally from a small Iowan town, is the man with a conscience we know will eventually drift over to the light, right side. McDormand’s character, meanwhile, rationalizes her job, to the tune of “It’s only a job.” Hal Holbrook puts in a warm, fuzzy, and also conscience-driven role as a clarifying voice in a community otherwise ready to succumb to the seductive wiles of these snake-like oil company salesfolk.
Even though the film sinks into the soggy ground of manipulative Hollywood hokum, Van Sant lives up to his reputation for paying attention to the sight-and-sound factors of filmmaking, through cinematographer Linus Sandgren’s aerial-shot omniscience and a song-stocked score, which ends with the post–Simon and Garfunkel glow of the Milk Carton Kids (heard twice at the Lobero last year). Filmically, at least, the Van Sant promise remains intact.