Hoping to capture lightning in a bottle a second time, Matt Damon reunites with 'Good Will Hunting' director Gus Van Sant for this cautionary drama inspired by the controversial environmental issue of hydraulic fracturing ("fracking"). And although they don't achieve similar success — both with audiences and in the production — 'Promised Land' remains a well-made and well-intentioned motion picture, one that mostly satisfies. Despite proudly wearing environmental concerns on their sleeves, the filmmakers smartly center the plot on corporate salesman Steve Butler (Damon) and his personal journey of realizing he's just another indispensable cog in a well-oiled, nearly-unstoppable machine.
Moving at a steady pace up the corporate ladder in an industry-leading energy company, ambitious middle-aged Butler is on the cusp of cementing his career path when visiting a small Pennsylvania farming community with his business partner Sue Thomason (Francis McDormand in a strong but extraordinary role). While walking on clouds after receiving news of a promotion, Butler intends this rural, economically-struggling town as one the last times he persuades land owners to sign leases for mineral drilling rights. The character is a bit on the cocky side, self-assured and satisfyingly certain of the relief he provides for families in need. And Damon does excellently at making him very likeable, not only with us but with townsfolk as well.
It's this confidence and certainty in the product Butler is selling that's crucial to the story and makes it effective, even when the rest of the production doesn't work as smoothly. Based on a story by Dave Eggers, with screenplay credits going to Damon and co-star John Krasinski, we see Butler's adamant, almost religious belief in the company he works for and the safety of hydraulic fracturing. A terrific montage sequence reveals him and Thomason like some sort of saints, bringing a much-needed sense of economic relief to the community. Cinematography by Linus Sandgren has the pair shining with a comforting, spiritual white glow behind them as they convince people to sign over their land. Butler is also very defensive of his belief in the system, talking reasonably and calmly to people, making sly backdoor deals or boldly threatening with violence.
This is essential, because the story is more about Steve Butler and his certainty of what he believes to be providing to this community than anything else. The emotional journey is on his personal belief in this capitalist pursuit, which can potentially produce harmful reactions, and a sudden challenge that forces him to question the ethics of that belief and process. To be sure, environmental messages are evident throughout, mostly coming from a concerned citizen (Hal Holbrook) and a very courteous environmentalist (Krasinski), but they largely play second fiddle to Butler's personal growth and realization. The character grew up in a similar background as the people of this farming town, but there's a bit of arrogance in his voice and a feeling of superiority about him. It's clear he was destined to be here and reminded of what he's long forgotten.
Director Gus Van Sant is known for endless experimentation and his uniquely subdued visual style, especially when working outside the Hollywood system. In 'Promised Land,' he brings that passion and creativity to this production with the same subtle design and talent for composition that works hauntingly and elusively. Many sequences are wide long shots allowing audiences to take in the calming beauty of the landscape, which noticeably lack hideously large drilling platforms. Several aerial shots show the roads through farmlands looking strangely similar to veins and arteries. And one memorable scene has Butler confidently trying but failing to persuade Halbrook's concerned elder while the American flag stands proudly behind him.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Universal Studios Home Entertainment brings 'Promised Land' to Blu-ray as a two-disc combo pack with an UltraViolet Digital Copy. A Region Free, BD50 disc sits comfortably opposite a DVD-5 and housed inside a blue, eco-lite case with a shiny slipcover. After a slow startup, viewers are greeted by the usual menu screen with full-motion clips and music.
'Promised Land' debuts with an often excellent 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode. Sporting an interesting if somewhat subdued photographic design by Linus Sandgren, contrast is noticeably downcast but consistent and nicely balanced. Black levels, however, could be a tad stronger and sometimes look murkier than I'd like, but they're satisfying for the most part. The color palette also feels largely restrained and downplayed, but everything appears accurately rendered and clean with only primaries providing some sense we're watching in HD. Skin tones are healthy with plenty of visible texture. This makes much of the rural town seem more quiet, relaxing and natural, something audiences could easily call home, rather than some idyll landscape about to be greedily harvested and pillaged.
Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the video is very well-defined with some beautiful, highly-detailed shots of the countryside. Fine lines in the leaves and on the bark of trees are plainly visible while individual blades of grass can be made out. The tiniest imperfection and blemish in the town's architecture, the clothing of townspeople and on the faces of the cast are distinctive and clear. Overall, it's great high-def transfer for a subdued but emotional drama.
On the audio front, the film doesn't quite impress as much as the video, which is to be expected from this type of genre. The character-driven story located much of its attention and energy on the dialogue and character interactions. In this respect, conversations are loud and clear, allowing the listener to take in every syllable uttered and appreciate the unique dialect of the area in which the plot is set. With excellent channel separation generating a wide soundstage, the rest of the imaging delivers a broad sense of space with several ambient effects of the local bar, the diner and the couple town hall meetings. Rears are mostly reserved for Danny Elfman's subtle score, which lightly expands the soundfield. There's not much going on in terms of an extensive mid-range and even less activity in the lower frequencies, but it's still a good lossless mix that does the film justice.
Matt Damon and Gus Van Sant reunite for this cautionary drama that's more about one corporate salesman's personal journey than any related politics concerning environmental issues with hydraulic fracturing. Though showing a few minor hiccups in the narrative, the film is well-made and well-intentioned, and it ultimately proves to be entertaining and satisfying. The Blu-ray arrives with great video and a very good audio presentation, but supplements are sadly very shortcoming. The overall package will nonetheless satisfy fans while everyone else will want to give it a rent first.