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 Ââ€“ who also co-wrote, produced and almost directed before stepping down â€“ 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 â€“ providing Steve's company a huge entry point for the rest of the state â€“ 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 â€“ plaid, jeans and boots â€“ 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 dÃ©cor 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 â€“ and cost â€“ 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 Aug. 29, 2016
Regardless of one's taste in comedy, it's hard to imagine someone not having a place in their laugh-loving heart for Gene Wilder, the Milwaukee-born comedy legend and big screen star who sadly passed away today at the age of 83.
Published Aug. 29, 2016
The common complaint is that Netflix's movie collection isn't what it used to be. But with September serving as the start of the streaming company's new deal with Disney, we may have to hush about its failure to get good new big releases
Published Aug. 26, 2016
OnMilwaukee caught up with comedian and "Silicon Valley" star T.J. Miller - while he was in a cornfield, natch - before his upcoming Milwaukee set to chat about working with Steven Spielberg, dying painfully (in movies) and why he loves Appleton.
Published Aug. 26, 2016
This morning, the Bucks and Froedtert & MCW announced they will develop two new health-oriented facilities in Downtown Milwaukee: a new practice and training facility, as well as medical office building and health center for the near North Side.
Published Aug. 25, 2016
Today, County Executive Chris Abele released a statement in the hopes of clarifying Milwaukee County's stance on Pokemon Go. It's fairly identical to what his office and the Parks Department said yesterday - just this time, with a lot of puns.
Published Aug. 24, 2016
The year 2016 has seen some powerful, earth-shattering tiffs in just its eight months, and now our city has a pop cultural beef of its own: Pokemon Go versus the Milwaukee County Parks Department. OnMilwaukee spoke to players and the Parks director for reaction.
Published Aug. 23, 2016
It's never been easier to know about breaking news as it's happening on the ground - and then share that news with others. But the facts can easily become polluted with ever more convincing half-truths, lies and oftentimes simple confusion.
Published Aug. 23, 2016
This morning, the Milwaukee Film Festival announced its latest program lineup, this time for the homegrown Cream City Cinema category. From docs to music videos to dramas to shorts and more, here's what to expect at this year's fest.
Published Aug. 17, 2016
Beginning Friday night, the inaugural Milwaukee Women's Film Festival will present a three-day big screen showcase for women's stories. The project, created by Andrea Thompson, started with a simple question: What are you doing?
Published Aug. 12, 2016
A federal judge today overturned the conviction of Brendan Dassey, who was found guilty of being an accessory to Teresa Halbach's 2005 murder and served as one of the subjects in the hit Netflix docu-series "Making a Murderer."