Matt Damon must love Frank Capra. In "Promised Land," which he wrote and planned to direct (before handing the reigns to Gus Van Sant,) his character's name may as well be Jimmy Stewart. As written, he plays Steve Butler: a common everyman (he's set up as a former farmboy, for God's sake,) traveling from county-to-county on duty to his corporate overlords. While he professes his belief in the benefits of fracking to gymnasiums full of townies, Van Sant frames him in front of an American flag. It's that type of movie.
Fracking - hydraulic fracturing - is a process used to extract oil from the ground; the environmental negatives of which are becoming a major political talking point. But, at least for a while, you'd be tricked into thinking Damon, Van Sant, and co-writer/co-star John Krasinski had actually transcended the message movie; had actually avoided making a "political-controversy-of-the-week" picture. "Land" appears to be less about fracking than about small county culture; prodding Damon through a comedy-of-manners where he tries to find the 'right' kind of low-class-looking trapper-hat, and constantly re-uses intro lines and sales pitches to increasing cynical effect.
This is Americana filmmaking; the type of vaguely romantic, somewhat-cynical-but-only-in-subtext entertainment that Old School Hollywood used to thrive off. For the first hour, and the last ten minutes, it proceeds exactly like that. But a third act twist involving Krasinski’s anti-fracking character, named Dustin Noble - I told you it was that type of movie - betrays everything that comes before it. Damon and Krasinski DO have a message they want you to hear, and their picture stops dead in its tracks so the characters can stare into the camera and, in lieu of a climactic moment, deliver them as soliloquies.
Luckily, the film still has Gus Van Sant going for it. Van Sant has had one of the weirdest careers in recent memory; pinballing back and forth from magic realism ("Drugstore Cowboy" is still one of my favorite films ever made), to Oscar-bait swill ("Good Will Hunting" is one thing, "Finding Forrester" is another entirely); from middlebrow melodrama ("Restless", really?) to art-house experimentation (I just recently saw "Gerry" for the first time, and well, holy shit!)
But here, he’s just a helmer-for-hire. He shoots the hell out of every scene - an action as miniscule as driving down the street becomes a visual feast; Damon’s car cutting across otherwise uninhibited roads becomes his de-facto signifier of "progress". But he can’t save the film from its own script. Sure, he can make the played-out romance that develops between Damon and Rosemarie Dewitt not only believable, but also sexy. And yes, he can turn an environmental activist named Dustin Noble - a guy who wears backward baseball caps and does karaoke to Springsteen in his spare time - from a screenwriter’s cliché into a real person.
But he can’t save the film from its own raison d’etre; the third-act twist that turns a low-key inquiry into townie culture into a self-important lecture on capitalism. And so for the second Christmas in a row (hello, "We Bought a Zoo"), I’m left asking myself: how much pandering crap am I willing to sit through in order to enjoy yet another magnificent Matt Damon performance? He’s obviously on another level from the rest of the picture. It’s just a damn shame that he’s responsible for the rest of the picture himself. Matt Damon the writer isn’t nearly as good as Matt Damon the actor.