Gus Van Sant has been one of the most intriguing directors of the past 20 years. He’s one of the few directors with a career that intertwines big studio movies with indies with backing from big name talent for the most part. He’s also one of the few directors to be relatively unaffected by the small grosses of many of his films.
It is unfair to refer to Promised Land as a project primarily fueled by Van Sant. The film was written by stars Matt Damon and John Krasinski and was initially supposed to be directed by Damon before other projects brought Van Sant into the fold relatively late into its development. While Van Sant’s success is not limited solely to films that he wrote, in the case of Promised Land it might have helped.
Promised Land is a film about the drilling of natural gas in rural areas populated by people who are struggling to make ends meet. Damon and Krasinki go head to head in vying for the town’s support of the project. Frances McDormand and Hal Halbrook excel in supporting roles.
The acting certainly isn’t the problem in the case of Promised Land. The problem is that none of the actors are given anything to work with in the film. The plot is quite simply, too basic for Van Sant to work with.
Most of Van Sant’s films are essentially character studies where plot takes a back seat to the interesting characters that the actors inhabit. None of the characters here quite captivate the audience in the way that Harvey Milk and Will Hunting have in Van Sant’s other films.
The writing should shoulder most of the blame for Promised Land’s failure. Damon might be an Oscar winning screenwriter, but he failed to determine whether this film is driven by character or plot. Some film’s can handle both, but with Van Sant behind the wheel, someone should have made a more concise decision as to where this film was going to go.
Promised Land is a prime example of a film that has all the pieces to be a success but fails to combine them to form a catalyst for success. A fairly by the books film was mismanaged by an art house director. The film isn’t a complete failure, but it certainly is not worth the time of its audience.