View Count: 77 |  Publish Date: December 27, 2012
'Promised Land' review: Damon's depths

Promised Land is a fine place to start appreciating Matt Damon, who always makes it seem as if everybody else is acting and hes just going through the movie being natural. Damon is the actor who leaves no fingerprints, who never calls attention to himself and never, ever screws up, not once in 20 years. Whether playing Jason Bourne or Mr. Ripley, Damon creates an illusion of the familiar, and that familiarity is put to good use in Promised Land, in which he plays a salesman for a fracking company, trying to talk rural people into leasing their land for natural-gas drilling.
He is paired with a fellow salesperson, played by Frances McDormand, who also radiates informality and trustworthiness. Once the contracts are signed, the natural-gas company will come in and everyone will get rich - maybe. Or maybe their livestock will die and flames will come shooting out of the water faucets. Damon and McDormand play nice people with high-pressure jobs and roots in the land theyre striving to transform. The question of the movie, a question they themselves must ultimately face, is whether theyre helping a farm culture survive or acting as the means of its extinction.
Promised Land is directed by Gus Van Sant, with attention to the performances and real feeling for the environments that rural people inhabit - the open spaces, the quiet, and the tiny downtown with one store that sells everything and one bar where everyone congregates. Even if youve lived in a city your whole life, its a world that feels like America.
Yet despite the high spirits and the proud talk of the residents, its a culture on life support, with farms undercut by big agriculture, unable to survive without government help. So to some of the residents, fracking looks like the miracle theyve been waiting for.
In an early scene, Damon sits in a living room and tells someone about the payoff from fracking. Youd be a millionaire. He says it with enough simplicity that it seems true and with enough force that the thought moves from the screen and fills the theater. Imagine someone - someone you instinctively trust and believe - telling you that if you sign something you will become a millionaire. And if you dont sign? The people on either side of you will become millionaires, but your kids wont be able to go to college.
Written by Damon and John Krasinski, who plays an environmentalist (from a story by Dave Eggers), Promised Land is a measured, careful movie that doesnt raise its voice and make broad claims, but quietly expresses concerns.
One concern, irrespective of the merits or dangers of fracking, is that the rural communities are no match for the natural-gas companies, with assets in the billions, and so their chance of getting unbiased, unfiltered information is doubtful. Thus, the film serves as a modest balance against that state of affairs, as well as a record of the moment in time when these decisions were being made. Its curious to consider how this very topical film will be regarded in 20 years.
Promised Land plays out as a kind of campaign between Damon and McDormand on one side and Krasinski on the other, as the folksy environmentalist who rides into town and makes everyone love him. Damon is in his element here, playing someone trying to work things out in his mind, forced into introspection, while feeling pressured on all sides.
In addition to Krasinski and McDormand, who offer playful support, the movie gets boosts from Hal Holbrook, as the towns wise man, and Rosemarie DeWitt, who has never been so appealing - its a dangerous charm to be able turn it on like that. But in the end this is Damons movie, in that hes the moral locus, the films center of meaning. Its about time to consider the possibility that Damons appearing in so many good movies is no coincidence, that hes a big part of what makes them good.
Promised Land
Drama. Starring Matt Damon, Frances McDormand, John Krasinski and Rosemarie DeWitt. Directed by Gus Van Sant. (R. 120 minutes.)
Mick LaSalle is The San Francisco Chronicles movie critic. E-mail:

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Time: 20:52  |  News Code: 45925  |  Site: San Francisco Chronicle
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