A well-executed twist can turn a good movie into something legendary. Of course, that's not to say that the rest of the film can just prattle about and rely on the big reveal to make everything good, but a surprising, thought out twist that works in correlation with the characters and story that came before can make for some of the most memorable movie-watching moments.
Just ask directors like Christopher Nolan, David Fincher or M. Night Shyamalan (eh, maybe not M. Night anymore).
In case that opening paragraph didn't give it away, there is a twist near the end of "Promised Land," the Matt Damon-led anti-fracking drama. I won't spoil it here, but it's dumb and preachy, a bad combination. It's quite a shame because before that audience-insulting turn of events, "Promised Land" is a modest, pleasant film about modest, small-town life.
Damon – who also co-wrote, produced and almost directed before stepping down – stars as Steve Butler, a corporate salesman climbing the ladder at a natural gas company. He's en route to a promotion, but before his pay hike, he has to take a hike to a small Pennsylvania town and get the residents to sign over the rights to drill on their properties.
Though the city may be small, the profits potentially hiding underneath could be massive, and getting it to go with natural gas – providing Steve's company a huge entry point for the rest of the state – could be even bigger.
With his co-worker Sue (a predictably winning Frances McDormand) in tow, Steve works his way through the town, signing the believers and converting the skeptics. However, at a should-be shoe-in town meeting, a local teacher (Hal Holbrook) raises some questions about the safety of fracking that get the rest of the citizens concerned.
Suddenly, what was once a sure thing is now getting put to a vote, and an energetic young environmentalist (John Krasinski) is making the rounds, convincing most of the townsfolk to vote no with personal stories of dead cattle and lost farmland.
It should come as no surprise that "Promised Land" is on the side of the friendly old Holbrook and the anti-fracking movement. Damon and Krasinski's script, based on a story from Dave Eggers, spares no expense showing that Steve is not to be trusted, whether it be bribing and low-balling the town's spokesman, or getting into costume – plaid, jeans and boots – as a relatable, small-town fellow.
And despite Steve's multiple tirades against small-town America and its "dillusional self-mythology," director Gus Van Sant (who previously worked with Damon on his breakthrough "Good Will Hunting") films the region with clear affection. He even takes a moment for a montage of locals posed by photogenic rusty décor and lovingly photographed fields and streams.
While the pieces are all in place for an environmental sermon, most of "Promised Land" feels more like an intriguing debate rather than a tedious lecture. The script thankfully puts a significant amount time aside for humanity, character and some really crackling exchanges. Some of them are fun and charming, namely Steve's flirty banter with his local love interest, played by Rosemarie DeWitt. Others tensely sizzle, like a diner table discussion that moves control from player to player like a verbal tennis match.
Most of the thanks, however, belong to the clever casting. Damon uses all of his mellow, unassuming charm to make Steve warm and likeable, sparking fun chemistry with McDormand and DeWitt. Combined with Krasinski's slightly smug turn as his rival, Damon's arguments for fracking and against blind Americana end up far more persuasive than the film may expect.
He may be blind himself, but he's not dumb and neither are his arguments. As a result, even despite itself, the audience gets an interesting conversation about fracking, natural gas and the rewards – and cost – of small-town America.
For the most part, that is. Unfortunately, after building appealing characters and a central conflict with a moderately even hand, the last act of "Promised Land" stumbles its way to the ending. DeWitt's cute romantic subplot becomes aimless and underdeveloped. The anti-corporate message loses its nuance and gets written in all caps, bolded and underlined (mainly by a caricature of a caricature of a country hick, played by Lucas Black).
Then there's the aforementioned twist, which really sours the film. It condescendingly pounds the point in as though it was afraid the audience wasn't paying attention, leaves several uncomfortable loose ends and just doesn't make sense.
A fleeting moment of thought or reflection is all that's needed to tear man-sized holes into its contrived sense of logic. Much like how drilling wipes out the cows and crops on Krasinski's farm in "Promised Land," the message eats away at the story and characters.
Van Sant's good-natured film, however, isn't escaping this review without a mild recommendation, if partnered with another recommendation. When "Promised Land" has about 15 minutes left, make your way out of the theater. Choose your own ending. It'll be better than the one on screen.
No Talkbacks for this article.
Post your comment/review now
Disclaimer: Please note that Facebook comments are posted through Facebook and cannot be approved, edited or declined by OnMilwaukee.com. The opinions expressed in Facebook comments do not necessarily reflect those of OnMilwaukee.com or its staff.
Recent Articles & Blogs by Matt Mueller
Published Nov. 26, 2014
King Washington - comprised of bassist Billy Lee and guitarists Tyson Kelly and George Krikes - hails from Los Angeles, so it's safe to say the recent hammering of cold winds and sleet isn't exactly something they're used to. The guys are more used to wearing petticoats and frills - their signature outfit - than heavy winter coats. Even with the weather, though, Milwaukee feels like a second home for the indie rock band.
Published Nov. 25, 2014
Bad news, Marcus Majestic employees; your Black Friday crowds are going to even bigger than usual this weekend. The Brookfield movie house is one of 30 theaters nationwide that will witness the power of a fully operational 88-second "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" trailer.
Published Nov. 24, 2014
As the creators of the Found Footage Festival, Nick Prueher and Joe Pickett are no strangers to bad ideas. And they'd have it no other way. For the past decade, that's exactly what Prueher, Pickett and the Found Footage Festival have done: showing people the best of the worst cheap VHS tapes the world has to offer, videos that can often make the tape from "The Ring" seem like a blissful rom-com.
Published Nov. 23, 2014
I'd like to say that I really, really liked "Mockingjay," and that it's my favorite of the franchise. As of right now, those statements are true, but I guess I can't say for sure until next year when the story is finally allowed to end.
Published Nov. 20, 2014
The trailer for "Pitch Perfect 2" came out this morning. The original cast - Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, etc. - is all here, as well as a few new faces. Among those new faces, however, is one very familiar to sports fans: Packers linebacker Clay Matthews - flanked on both sides by fellow Packers TJ Lang, Josh Sitton, Don Barclay and David Bakhtiari.
Published Nov. 19, 2014
In case there was a question about this matter, "Dumb and Dumber To" is - for lack of a better word - dumb. Very dumb. There's entertainment where you turn your brain off, and then there's this, where maybe it's best if you leave your brain out of the theater altogether just in case its rollicking, unrepentant stupidity is somehow contagious. But did I laugh? Yes.
Published Nov. 17, 2014
They aren't old enough to legally smoke, drink or even drive. If "This Is Spinal Tap" was in theaters, they wouldn't be able to see it without their parents, and if you add together the ages of all five band members, the quintet's combined age (63) would still be younger than Sir Paul McCartney (72). But while most kids' dreams of rock glory only go as far as that - dreams - Mad RED Kat has already started acting on its aspirations, forming a band and playing gigs across the city.
Published Nov. 17, 2014
Much like Stewart's incredibly influential television show, "Rosewater" is about navigating through troubling political times, topics and outrages with lightness, humor and humanity. And for the most part, the funnyman does a respectable job with his first go-around, his familiarity with the melding of politics and humor mostly making up for his unfamiliarity with writing and directing for the big screen.
Published Nov. 15, 2014
When most people think of "Harvey," their minds probably jump to the classic 1950 Oscar-winning Jimmy Stewart film. But before Stewart got a crack at it, the story of Elwood P. Dowd and his pooka started out on stage. Now, it's returning to its origins with a run at the Milwaukee Rep starting Tuesday, Nov. 18 in the Quadracci Powerhouse.
Published Nov. 13, 2014
For many bands, the health of the group relies on giving one another space when need be. In most cases, that's pretty easy; after all, after practice or a gig, usually everyone can go in their separate directions. That's a little bit difficult for Chris Wagoner and Mary Gaines, the core duo of the Madison-based jazz band The Stellanovas, who celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary this year.