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 Aug. 29, 2014
The dynamic duo is returning to its home away from home next weekend, with a show on Friday, Sept. 5 at The Pabst Theater (moved from its original location at the Cactus Club after it sold out). And they're coming back with gallons of deservedly good press, an appearance on "The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon" and the deafening buzz of a band obviously on the rise.
Published Aug. 29, 2014
"The Doyle & Debbie Show," the season opener for the Milwaukee Rep, is making history. "Is this the first time a toilet's been on the Stackner stage? Probably," said JC Clementz, the show's director. The prop potty, however, nicely sets the tone for "The Doyle & Debbie Show," a goofy Christopher Guest-esque parody about a washed-up country duo.
Published Aug. 27, 2014
"Sin City: A Dame to Kill For" - Robert Rodriguez's hyper-stylized and hyper-violent hyper-noir - has many, many sins of its own to contemplate and consider, the most glaring of which perhaps being a severe case of tardiness. Then again, even if it was perfectly on time, "A Dame to Kill For" would still feel just as relentlessly grim, one-note and pointless.
Published Aug. 26, 2014
For about half of the year, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band calls its New Orleans namesake home, playing bright brassy jazz to the residents of the Big Easy. For the other half of the year, however, the legendary jazz band brings that cajun flavor and music across the country to cities needing a little extra kick.
Published Aug. 25, 2014
Yes, the expected dopey melodrama finds its way into "If I Stay," but it mostly plays second fiddle to an above average relationship drama, one with seemingly real characters (well, real for a teen romance) coping with seemingly real issues and problems. I didn't mind having to spend time with these dreamy young people, which is a lot more than I can say about anything Nicholas Sparks has done lately.
Published Aug. 23, 2014
There is good news for guitarist/vocalist Andrew Foys and Milwaukee music fans who landed squarely on "hated it" when it came to his band's previous name, Elusive Parallelograms: the name has run its course. The multi-genre spanning psychedelic rock band recently underwent a "reboot," kicking the old moniker to the curb and reintroducing themselves as Tapebenders - complete with an upcoming new album.
Published Aug. 21, 2014
Late night is looking bright, as the Milwaukee Film Festival announced its 2014 selections for its Cinema Hooligante program, a midnight mix for fans of all things cult, crazed and - considering the after bedtime showings - caffeinated.
Published Aug. 21, 2014
About 20 years later, Jeff Bridges has finally gotten "The Giver" to the big screen, and for a project with clearly some passion behind it, the final result is bafflingly inert, as though the film itself has been sampling the characters' daily emotional sedation.
Published Aug. 19, 2014
Author Stephen Moss only lived in Milwaukee for a little while, maybe five years or so, but he makes sure to drop by all the time nowadays - at least in literary form.
Published Aug. 18, 2014
The romantic comedy genre has taken quite the beating over the past couple of years. Luckily, thanks to a cute cast and a script that gracefully brings some fresh, sweet life to some seemingly old, fell-worn tropes, "What If" turns out to be a rare modern rom-com worth swooning over.