Why does Hollywood keep churning out didactic movies like "Promised Land"?
Political issues come and go, but message movies never change. Thanks partly to a relatively novel subject—fracking—and partly to an elliptical set-up, Gus van Sant’s Promised Land, written from a story by Dave Eggers by its stars, Matt Damon and The Office’s John Krasinski, varies from the norm only in fooling you for almost half an hour into thinking it actually might be up to something interesting. Too bad the movie turns into the same Ibsen for Idiots combo of a burning deck and a stacked one that was creaky when Jane Fonda was just another lonesome gal with a few New York modeling gigs to her credit.
His brow as furrowed as if he’s just woken up in a voting booth with no pants on, Damon plays Steve Butler—as in “loyal servant,” no doubt—who’s snapping up mineral-rights leases on behalf of a corporation unsubtly named Global somewhere in generic, Great Recession-ravaged Heartland, U.S.A. The setting’s lack of specificity is your first hint that flyover country will go on looking like flyover country to well-meaning Hollywoodites even from a minivan. When you’re telling a story about the potential destruction of a community, providing some sense of said community’s distinctive crotchets and idiosyncrasies might be nice, but Promised Land‘s sense of place is mired at sitcom level. Figuring out that a town like this probably has a high-school basketball team of some sort is about as sharp as the movie’s observational gifts get.
Still, the early sequences as Butler learns his way around Anyville —insinuating himself into the locals’ good graces by participating in a drinking game at what appears to be the only bar in town, vaguely taking up with Rosemary De Witt as Alice, an implausibly chic schoolteacher—do have some vitality. Van Sant is often happiest when he’s in no hurry to get to the point, and Frances McDormand brings some genuine flavor and individuality to her talking-point part as Butler’s frankly mercenary (“It’s just a job”) sidekick. I’m not sure there’s another actress around with comparable expertise at adding a compassionate pound of flesh to stick figures.
Then, as in a Nativity play, everybody else starts to tiresomely shuffle toward incarnating their representative debate roles. We get the yokel who’s fatuously thrilled about the chance to make a killing; we get the Rueful Guy whose family has owned his land for generations. The ringer in the bunch is Hal Holbrook—no, I wouldn’t blame you if you just quit reading right there—as a high-school science prof who’s all up to speed on fracking’s adverse consequences and challenges Butler at town meetings. Naturally, it’s not enough that he’s informed and saintly; he’s got to be a world-renowned academic who’s teaching at Anyville High in his sunset years for the fun of it. So much for trusting the common people to figure things out unassisted, and what I’d give by now to see Holbrook play an illiterate, vicious old loon who eats kittens and brags about it is beyond describing.
Butler’s foil is Krasinski as Dustin Noble, who turns up to lobby against Global on behalf of an environmental outfit called Athena. Soon, he’s not only making better time with Alice the schoolteacher than Damon did, but outdoing him at going native in The Only Bar in Town. If Krasinski seems to have wrong-headedly prepped for the role by watching a truckload of slasher movies, it turns out there’s an explanation for that—and yet the climactic big reveal about Dustin’s true agenda in Anyville isn’t at all convincing. Damon’s performance is more adept, but not really by that much; when you recall that this dreary crisis-of-conscience role is one he wrote for himself—and then compare it to his imaginative, quiddity-filled take on Middle American corporate foibles in Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant—you realize, once again, that earnestness affects even good actors the way chloroform affects butterflies.
What, I wonder, is the purpose of didactic movies like Promised Land? The unconverted obviously won’t go, and the converted won’t learn anything they don’t know—except, maybe, a few tidbits confirming their suspicion that Hollywood doesn’t know enough about “ordinary” Americans to be trustworthy even when agitating on their behalf. The point of projects like this one can’t be merely to gratify the filmmakers’ sense of virtue, can it? Unfortunately, of course it can. If you’ll forgive me for paraphrasing Megyn Kelly, they’re just math celebrities do as liberals to make themselves feel better.
More Related Stories
- How I ended up in a pyramid scheme
- My bipolar partner beat me
- Cannes: Ryan Gosling's new movie draws the boo-birds
- Teenagers care more about online privacy than you think
- The Maker kids are alright
- If Alex Pareene was a cable news executive...
- Radio host tweets rape joke, blames journalists for reporting on it
- Juror responds to Joe Francis' insults with thoughtful email
- Portland's senseless war on fluoride
- Graphic video reportedly shows possible London machete attack suspect
- El Salvador court delays ruling on abortion case while woman's life hangs in the balance
- New track from the Lonely Island features Solange Knowles, semicolons
- UK officials: Radical Islam behind London attack
- What economists get wrong about the jobs crisis
- Kicked out of the mall -- for an anti-cancer hat
- Amazon introduces fan fiction publishing platform
- Ted Cruz: "I don't trust the Republicans"
- Why do men pretend to be women online?
- Hickenlooper strikes major blow to death penalty
- Pa. governor "can't find" any Latinos to work in his administration
- Glenn Beck: "The American people have just been raped"
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11
Salon is proud to feature content from The American Prospect, a Washington, D.C.-based political magazine that focuses on longform journalism and smart analysis. Check out more Prospect writers by clicking here.