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 Sept. 18, 2014
Character actor David Eigenberg is likely best known for spending multiple seasons and two movies romancing Cynthia Nixon's Miranda Hobbes on the iconic HBO TV show "Sex and the City." Eigenberg's latest television project nowadays, however, is far from high fashion and high living in New York City. Instead of a fiery redhead, Eigenberg now co-stars with actual flames on NBC's "Chicago Fire."
Published Sept. 17, 2014
In 2010, Mark Clements arrived in Milwaukee and, in his first act as artistic director, brought something to the Milwaukee Rep's main stage that oddly it had never seen in its impressive history: a musical. Several years later, Clements has made it a bit of a tradition to feature a musical in the Rep's main house schedule. 2014 is no different and the Powerhouse opens up with "The Color Purple."
Published Sept. 15, 2014
The title of The War on Drugs' latest album is "Lost in the Dream," fitting for a record - and a moment in time - that utterly enveloped front man Adam Granduciel. The band is now taking the final product on the road, including a stop at The Pabst Theater on Sunday, Sept. 21. Before then, Granduciel chatted with OnMilwaukee.com about becoming a real band on the road, the process behind the album and the inner battles that went into it.
Published Sept. 14, 2014
It's hard to imagine there was much clamoring for a sequel to "Dolphin Tale." The first film was a modest early fall success back in 2011, but even then, the story of Winter the dolphin was already fairly thin dramatic material, serving as little more than a nice pleasant aside. Still, somebody thought it was a good idea to head back to the well, and surprisingly - judging from "Dolphin Tale 2" - that person wasn't wrong.
Published Sept. 12, 2014
The Brewers are desperately trying to pull themselves out of a devastating tailspin. Even when they win, they seem to lose - as evidenced by last night's Giancarlo Stanton debacle. Sounds like a good time to get baseball's favorite canine Hank the Dog back in the spotlight!
Published Sept. 10, 2014
The country-tinged rock duo of Phil Leavitt and Joie Calio worked together for years in the band Dada. 7Horse, however, marks a fairly new project for the guys. And there are certainly worse things to put on an early band's resume than being associated with an Oscar-nominated Scorsese film. OnMilwaukee.com got a chance to chat with Leavitt about the band's origins, its Milwaukee connection and getting the rare Scorsese Stamp of Approval.
Published Sept. 9, 2014
For fans of the late '90s, names like the Sugar Ray, "TRL," Surge and Chris Gaines will sound very familiar (OK, maybe not that last one). For local music fans around in the era, another name might sound a little familiar: The Buzzhorn.
Published Sept. 8, 2014
The good news? As with every year, the lineup of movies are the Milwaukee Film Festival is overflowing with terrific options. The bad news? Unfortunately, save for some kind of planetary revolution halt, divine intervention or new time machine development, there are only so many hours in the day. So here are some picks for the film festival selections you should definitely make the time to see.
Published Sept. 5, 2014
After slowly teasing its complete lineup for the past several weeks, the 2014 Milwaukee Film Festival finally revealed the entire cinematic buffet it's assembled for film fans - both hardcore and casual - this morning. And my friends, it looks absolutely delicious.
Published Sept. 4, 2014
Driving down Grange Avenue around the border of Hales Corners and Greendale, the two towns look like typical pleasant suburbs, with assorted shops, strip malls, small businesses and parks mixed in between the cozy subdivisions and homes. And then you come across Trimborn Farm, a seven-and-a-half-acre time machine back to the 1800s, providing a glimpse at the history of the two towns and the city of Milwaukee.