In the new eco-drama "Promised Land," co-writers and co-stars Matt Damon and John Krasinski take on the hot-button issue of hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," through which chemicals are pumped into the ground to extract natural gas. Damon plays an ace corporate salesman trying to buy up drilling rights in a Pennsylvania farm town, and Krasinski plays an anti-fracking activist.
For many critcs, however, the film itself doesn't dig deep enough to fulfill its potential.
The Times' Kenneth Turan writes that "Promised Land" has "a strong cast and an intriguing premise that has the added bonus of real-world relevance," but "the film flounders before it reaches its conclusion" and is ultimately "too gimmicky for its evident earnestness."
Damon's seemingly anti-heroic role and natural appeal as an actor make for an interesting combination early in the film, Turan says, until the story takes a turn and it becomes evident "that the real drama in 'Promised Land' is not the case for or against fracking, it's about the saving of [Damon's character's] soul, about the hows and whys of whether or not this basically decent young man will see the light." In the end, it's "an echo of a convincing film rather than the real deal."
The New York Times' A.O. Scott calls "Promised Land" "earnest," "sometimes effective" and "sometimes clumsy." Director Gus Van Sant, who previously worked with Damon on "Good Will Hunting" and "Gerry," employs a style that is "watchful and low-key [and] puts character ahead of story, and the script invites the actors to be warm, funny and prickly." Supporting turns from Frances McDormand and Titus Welliver are especially good, Scott says.
But, Scott adds, the film "has a point to make," and in doing so it "veers away from its strengths, ending in a welter of convenient (and dubious) plot twists and puffed-up speeches."
Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune describes the film as "more an argument than a fully fleshed-out drama." While "the actors are first-rate," Phillips says, especially Rosemarie DeWitt (playing a local schoolteacher and love interest), "the script is unconvincing; two key narrative twists, one related to the other, are deeply hokey." And although the town where the film is set is supposed to be struggling, the film "is too concerned with shimmering rural vistas … to give us much grit."
Kyle Smith of the New York Post labels "Promised Land" a "groaner of an agenda movie" with "heavy-handed symbolism." (Krasinski's do-gooder character has the last name Noble, for example.) After "a promising start," Smith says, "the movie gets a case of the sillies," and "the lefty paranoia of the absurd third act … will remove any suspicions you may have that what you’re witnessing bears relation to reality."
The Washington Post's Ann Hornaday finds "Promised Land" to be "wispy" and "over-earnest." But while it "isn’t a particularly arresting piece of filmmaking," it does benefit from Damon's non-cookie-cutter character ("a refreshing twist"). The film is also "helped mightily" by McDormand and DeWitt.
Among the dissenting critics is Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle, who gives "Promised Land" a positive review and largely credits Damon. The film, he writes, "is a fine place to start appreciating Matt Damon, who always makes it seem as if everybody else is acting and he's just going through the movie being natural." LaSalle adds that "'Promised Land' is a measured, careful movie that doesn't raise its voice and make broad claims, but quietly expresses concerns."