Director Gus Van Sant is an auteur capable of dropping an award-winning character-driven film (Good Will Hunting) with big-name actors one year, and small, provocative films where characters barely talk to each other the whole time (Last Days) the next. No matter which Van Sant flavor is your favorite, the man is great at both of them. For his latest, Promised Land, he goes the mainstream route – taking A-list actors into a farming community for a fracking debate. The film was originally supposed to be Matt Damon‘s (School Ties) directorial debut, but scheduling conflicts threw it in Van Sant’s lap with just over a month to prepare. Despite some solid direction and acting, Promised Land suffers from a few hiccups. But how does it hold up on Universal’s Blu-ray? Hit the jump and I’ll tell you all about it.
Steve Butler (Damon) is a traveling salesman for Global, a multi-billion dollar natural gas company. What he sells to struggling small town farmers is the intangible dream of millions if they will just sign on the dotted line. He’s part con-man, part everyman. His farming roots make him damn good at his job – he’s able to talk on the level with locals going through devastating economic hardships. On the other hand, he’s a corporate wolf in flannel clothing who bribes mayors and sincerely threatens to punch people in the face when he’s frustrated.
His partner is the much more icy cool Sue (Frances McDormand). The duo is sent to a rural Pennsylvania town to buy up the land for Global. What seems like an easy gig turns sour when an elderly high school teacher (Hal Holbrook) starts raising awareness about the controversial hydraulic drilling method known as fracking. Then impassioned environmentalist Dustin Noble (John Krasinski) shows up and really starts turning the town against the two Global goons. He even sings Springstreen at a local karaoke bar. That’s some small-town manipulation right there.
Once these pieces are in place, the rest of the film is thoroughly predictable and ultimately disappointing. From the moment he sets foot in the town it’s clear that Steve is headed for a career nosedive and change-of-heart. When the double whammy plot twist occurs during the third act, it all feels more ridiculously implausible than shocking.
At least the cast delivers strong and earnest performances across the board. It was great to see Scoot McNairy in another small, but tremendously acted role. He had a helluva 2012 with Argo and Killing Them Softly and I hope to see him in less supporting and more lead roles in the future.
The screenplay, written by Damon and Krasinksi and based on a story by Dave Eggers, doesn’t take a particularly strong political stance, although there’s an obvious message about greedy corporations risking the skin of the working man. It’s the delivery of this message where the movie fumbles. It’s a tug-of-war between actual compelling moments and contrived schmaltz wearing Dickies. There was plenty of room for an examination of a rural community on the brink of collapse – something I know Van Sant has the sensibilities to pull off gracefully – but instead we get manipulative frak (and I mean that in the Battlestar manner, not the oil-drilling term).
Despite the lack of supplements, Universal has put out a good looking and sounding Blu-ray package.
Promised Land is presented in 1080p/AVC-endcoded 1.85:1 widescreen with DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. The entire film has a washed-out, soft look to it and the darks are really muted. Details are crisp and clean. Overall it’s not a stunning looking film but the transfer does great for what is on the screen. The audio mix is fine – everything is pretty straightforward in that department.
The package is pretty weak as far as special features go. “The Making of Promised Land” runs only 10 minutes and a good portion of that are clips from the film. It’s basically an extended promo. There’s also an extended scene that runs a whopping two minutes.