HBO News Blog

Movie Review: Promised Land

By Marc Price on Nov 1, 2013 to New Movies

Promised Land

There are some movies that could be considered empty, and some that are light. Empty movies don’t hold any substantial value. You’re bored the whole way through until the last fade out and the credits start scrolling because that’s the signal you can finally break away. If you want an easy example of an empty movie, take a blind stab in the romantic comedy genre. Light movies, though similar, have some very different aspects. They’re not empty, they’re just completely sterile. They leave you with a nice warm feeling inside rather than being bored, but it’s nothing substantial if anything ever comes of it. It’s not too loud, the characters aren’t too thin or straight up caricatures, and the plot is simple and easy to follow. Simply a pleasant experience for a ten dollar ticket. You remember that movie, “The Bucket List?” Asymptomatic terminal cancer leaves them with the opportunity to fill the last few months of their lives with as much living as possible. Despite a heavy theme, that’s a light movie. Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman are just having a good time, and because you can easily connect with them, you have a good time watching their exploits.  

What we have here is something in between. This here, is a “lukewarm” film. It’s not empty, but at the same time there’s no resonating with the theme or the characters or the story. Issues are brought up, but nothing ever comes of them. Complex ideas get marred by simplistic story telling. The worst thing is that with these movies, you sometimes really want to like them. You’ve got the half frowned, eyes-averted facial expression whenever you talk about it, the same way you might look if someone brought up something about your most recent ex.

Promised Land PosterMatt Damon is Steve Butler (but I’m just going to call him Matt Damon because that’s all he really is here), a man charged with buying up all the property of a small town for a natural gas company. See, under the acres of farmland in certain places, deep underground are layers of rock and earth which contain natural gas. Damon’s company wants at it, so they offer a ton of money to the townsfolk for it. If you pay attention to any agricultural news, you know that farms aren’t exactly in the best shape right now, so this money becomes a saving grace. The only thing is, the process to extract the natural gas, fracking, is infamous for causing serious environmental damage to the land it works on. Namely, it kills the land. Salts the earth. That’s what a new environmental group heralded by Dustin Noble (John Krasinski, who henceforth will be referred to in the same way as Damon) wants to tell the town. By selling to Damon, they are burning the land they inherited from the generations of family before them. So in short, Damon wants to buy the land for his energy company, and Krasinski wants to stop him.

Don’t get me wrong. I detest fracking. I agree wholeheartedly with the message of this movie, insofar as that fracking is completely detrimental to the environment. The only problem is, this movie is trying to say more than that. It takes a realistic approach to all this. Damon painstakingly goes door to door convincing people that they should sell their land, promising all their dreams will come true for it. He skypes with his bosses. He goes to town hall meetings at the local high school gym. He’s selling something even though we’re not sure he believes it’s truly good or bad. That’s one of the biggest problems with this movie. There aren’t any good guys in this. Oh, there are people who fight against a company swooping in and buying the town, but they aren’t exactly good people, or even characters. None of the environmentalists ever actually get into the real science of fracking. It’s like the writers got all their information from the titles of articles on fracking over reading read them, and it translates into characters who we’re told are smart, but come off as a high school smart. There’s no substantial information that anyone wouldn’t already know. Since there aren’t any concerns about Matt Damon coming out alright, Krasinski’s character is played up as smug so you don’t care so much about Matt Damon’s problems so much as letting someone so arrogant win. It’s a contradictory feeling, because how can you hate him, even if he is so condescendingly smug, if he’s right? If in the end he’s saying all the things calmly and eloquently that we would shout at the top of our lungs until a vessel in our forehead popped? Who are we rooting for here? The townsfolk? They’re stuck, immobile between Damon and Krasinski’s feud, swayed by the very gentle breeze of simplistic arguments that come up.             

Here we have what’s being sold as a light movie… about fracking? And a town on its last legs selling out to big energy to scrape by? I keep making distinctions about vague types of movies, so here’s my attempt at justification. The town was going to get a massive influx of money if they went along with Damon. It isn’t clear whether anything too bad would happen to Damon if he couldn’t deliver. They make a point saying this was an entry point for the gas company into the state, but that’s a problem for the energy company. Who’s going to give a shit about the energy company? In the end, there wasn’t a whole lot to lose. The only thing that seemed to be at stake was the land. The land that they liked to remind everyone was anchoring the townsfolk down and dragging them into a pit of debt. Why should we care if it seems like the bad guy, more than Damon of Krasinski, was the land itself? If it’s trying to sway the people who might one day have someone like Matt Damon’s character walk up to their door, their minds will already be made up especially if they don’t offer any substantial evidence for or against it. Life isn’t a movie. Poverty sucks. A real life person won’t see the environmental ethics past the fact that he can’t feed his children. It’s not pessimism, it’s pragmatism. If the only argument this movie was making is that fracking is bad, then okay. But when the solution to that is people simply deciding that they can endure it for a little while longer with no viable options beyond that, the prime message of the dangers involved with fracking gets muddled. I just wonder whether people would put the welfare of their families over the welfare of their land.

Promised Land 1

This movie is moralizing based on the previous centuries values, but the people who would pay attention to that wouldn’t care that Matt Damon is the one preaching. It’s especially damning in the fact that this movie doesn’t want to take any sides on the issue. That might not be a problem in a heavier movie, but this isn’t heavy. There aren’t any good guys because of how they tackle the plot. There have to be clear lines of good and bad because that’s how you keep an audience invested in a light movie. Not enough happens here to generate any real emotions. The way things get twisted just make an attempt at emotional stakes wound up as confusing. Krasinski’s environmental activist is a smug intolerable jackass. Sure, having no bad guys makes a conflict like this realistic, but for realistic you could just watch a documentary. This is a movie. Add a level of excitement you wouldn’t find in real life. This is supposed to be an escape! You don’t escape life by walking into your backyard, you have to at least leave your state (In the physical or spiritual sense).

I really wish I didn’t have to be so hard on it. Other critics already got their turn at the punching bag, and audiences… well there weren’t any for this. Its heart was in the right place. However, the movie can’t stop tripping over its own feet because of the anchoring shackles of a dragging script. They wanted to make fracking look bad and they wound up making me apathetic instead. It’s lukewarm. There’s an HBO documentary already called “Gasland.” Watch that if you want to learn something about the inherent dangers of fracking.  

  • tnsmoke

    I enjoyed the movie but agree witht this review. As someone who lives in a town in OH where fracking is being done, I had hoped for more of an anti-fracking message. Our town was decimated by the decline of the steel mill industry and the only jobs offered now are in the fracking industry. What DOES someone do? Do they be noble and watch their house be forclosed and wonder how to feed their family or do they get a job in the fracking industry? We have even had mild earthquakes from fracking. It’s a tough situation and no easy answer. Always a treat to watch Matt Damon and good to see John Krasnski have a life after The Office, but this screenplay wasn’t the best for either actor. I’d give this 3 stars.

  • Jef Dinsmore

    I enjoy sparring with you and here is the latest. I have not seen PROMISED LAND so I cannot challenge your take on it. But, I can stir debate on how you classify movies with your on terms and offer them out as fact we should all know and agree upon as opposed to just being your valued opinion.

    Empty movies and Light movies are your latest. I have to disagree, though I respect your opinion, that all Romantic Comedies are empty. Though not a frequent watcher of them I do not think such films of that genre like “Annie Hall,” “Sleepless In Seattle, ” “Moonstruck” or older ones like “The Philadelphia Story” or “It Happened One Nght” are empty. You can, as you state however, take a stab in the dark and randomly pick a bad one which you can do in any genre. I just thought thata rather unfair statement to make.

    I agree that PROMISED LAND, you would think, would be a movie that would strike a chord, stir up the situation or stimulate some thoughts. It is a shame if it hasn’t done so on such a topical issue. Maybe, someone who has watched it will be able to add acomment here to support your opinion or find value in it instead.

    One last note – in my opinion, it is okay to watch a movie that just makes you feel good or invokes mild chuckles, like “Ther Bucket List”; not all movies are meant to be impactful but entertaining – even just mildly entertaining.

    • Marc Price

      I completely agree with everything you said. I didn’t bring up romantic comedies to disparage them all, I know that some are really good. It’s just a much more immediate example, at least in modern movies, of a genre gone awry. By that I mean, your examples are at minimum 25 years old. Compare that to more recent movies like “What’s Your Number,” “The Wedding Planner,” or “Ghosts of Girlfriend’s Past.” And “The Bucket List” is a movie that I actually really like. I didn’t say light as a term to disparage, I used it more as a way of saying that the movie’s theme isn’t so heavy that it weighs down the spectacle OF the movie, if you know what I mean? Like in “The Bucket List” they didn’t focus for too long on the cancer, but established it enough that you could sympathize with the characters. That way when they had fun, the audience got to have fun too. It’s like if instead of going out and doing all those once in a lifetime things, the movie tried to play it heavy and have them go make amends with people in their life who they’ve wronged or something. I just used “Light” and “Empty” to try and convey just where this movie lies on some sort of universal gradient.

      • Jef Dinsmore

        I guess I must be confused with your style of writing.

        • Marc Price

          maybe I wasn’t clear enough since I was so focused on the movie










Find an HBO Series





More HBO

Subscribe to HBO
Countries HBO Is In
Watch Game of Thrones Online
Watch The Leftovers Online
Watch Silicon Valley Online
HBO Premiere & Air Dates
True Detective Streaming
Other Streaming Television
HBO Boxing Live Stream
Game of Thrones on DVD & Blu-Ray
Watch Cinemax Online