However, "Promised Land" is way more commercial than they're letting on, with an agreeably rebel-rousing vibe, lush cinematography and a beautiful score by Tim Burton confederate Danny Elfman. But is it enough to wrestle you away from "Les Miserables" or "Lincoln" this New Year's, or is it destined for late-December obscurity, along with a similar host of would-be contenders?
PRO: The Cast In "Promised Land," Matt Damon stars as an operative for a major energy outfit. Here, he is sent to a small New England town to try and gain public support for fracking, a potentially dangerous process in which water and chemicals are fired deep into the earth to try and extract natural gas. Damon successfully fills his performance with a stew of optimism mixed with self-loathing (the star has cited the leads of Elia Kazan movies as an inspiration). Co-star Frances McDormand, as his put-upon partner in crime who isn't nearly as morally conflicted as he is, is terrific, as is John Krasinski, who is both charming and a little bit weasel-y as an environmental advocate sent to dismantle Damon's campaign. Using the likability and goodwill he's accumulated from his stint on "The Office" (except with a little more edge), Krasinksi is a new kind of goofy hero here. And as the love interest of both men, Rosemarie DeWitt is tremendous as a small-town teacher who knows exactly how dire the economic situation is (and still manages to do what's right).
CON: The Subject Matter Might Be Off-Putting Fracking is such a controversial subject that we were explicitly asked not to talk about it during the movie's press day. ("It's not about fracking!" was the common refrain.) For much of the country, this is an issue that they are intimately aware of, and for many small American towns on the brink of financial ruin, the process can provide large (if fleeting) economic gains. However, that the same process could devastate whole swaths of countryside (and make things like the water toxic and flammable) doesn't seem to factor in, as long as they can keep their farms just a little bit longer. The fact that this issue is wrapped inside a feel-good, "Norma Rae"-style movie won't make it any more palpable.
PRO: At Least They're Talking About It The movie might be unpleasant for those who have to deal with this scenario (and, of course, protests erupted over the movie's content before anyone had actually seen it), but at least the discussion is being had. It could be years before this subject is brought up again. You can make fun of Hollywood all you like, but sometimes they really are willing to confront things head-on (and ahead of time). This is one of those instances.
PRO: Gus Van Sant Kills It Gus Van Sant is one of those directors who is so consistently excellent that you kind of take advantage of how good he really is. With "Promised Land," Van Sant took over from Damon, who was originally slated to direct, and distinctly made it his own. What could have been a typical bit of lefty sentiment is instead something odd and affecting. Visually, Van Sant fills the frame with painterly landscapes of Pennsylvania (where the film was shot) and its watercolor skies, and handles sequences with crisply edited montages. Even when Van Sant falters (like his shot-for-shot "Psycho" remake), he still fascinates. Thankfully, "Promised Land" is a Gus Van Sant triumph.
CON: The Twist It should be noted that "Promised Land" has a twist towards the end. It's not exactly a revelatory, M. Night Shyamalan-style twist that re-contextualizes everything that came before it, but it is substantial and you could go back and re-watch the movie with a new set of eyes. Honestly, we are normally all for a small scale drama adding a bit of intrigue to the proceedings, but here it feels out of place. The problem with it -- and this is without giving anything away -- is that it seems a little too sneaky for a movie that was so pleasantly by-the-book.
PRO: Danny Elfman's Score While primarily known for his baroque contributions to Tim Burton's films -- filled with choral sections and big, booming themes -- composer Danny Elfman is also able to create smaller, more melancholy pieces, many of them for Van Sant. Their newest collaboration is one of their best -- full of twinkly, organic-sounding flourishes that establish mood and also drive the narrative forward. The music isn't just wallpaper; it's something much more. It's also the perfect cap to a nearly unparalleled year for Elfman, which included peerless scores for "Hitchcock," "Frankenweenie," "Dark Shadows," "Silver Linings Playbook" and "Men in Black 3." Whew, he must be tired.
"Promised Land" opens wide on January 4
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated that the movie opened last weekend, when it in fact opens this Friday in select cities, including Atlanta, Boca Raton, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York, Philadelphia, Portland, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington DC. It will open wide on January 4