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Promised Land

Year: 2012
Studio: Focus Features
Director: Gus Van Sant
Writer: John Krasinski/Matt Damon/Dave Eggers
Cast: Matt Damon, Frances McDormand, John Krasinski, Rosemarie DeWitt, Hal Holbrook

In any other hands, this oft-told story of the redeemed capitalist would be mawkish and clumsy. And those kinds of tropes are hanging there in the background, but Gus Van Sant is one of those directors who effortlessly gets naturalism out of both actors and stories, making Promised Land the best possible version of what this movie could be.

Matt Damon is Steve, a newly minted executive at a natural gas fracking company sent to a small town to sell the residents on the idea of leasing their land to produce gas. His pitch is simple – they're sitting on a goldmine – and almost everybody in the declining town has dollar signs in their eyes.

But even as a single voice protests at the town meeting called to discuss the company's offer, that of high school science teacher Hal Holbrook, Van Sant doesn't make it so movie-ey, with a swelling chorus and a heroic lone figure. Even those like Holbrook who aren't in many scenes come across as real people with real concerns that collide with those of others and who have to figure them out like adults.

While Steve and his smart, sardonic offsider Sue (Frances McDormand) are trying to tamp down the growing discontent among the townspeople that might derail the entire project, another fly appears in the ointment – environmentalist Dustin (John Krasinksi, who wrote the script along with Damon), who starts disseminating alarming information about other fracking projects across the country and the sick or dead livestock and poisoned water they've caused.

There's nothing groundbreaking about the story – in another universe and with slightly different subject matter it could be a Disney-flavoured film of triumphalism and justice. The secret sauce is all in the way the characters are drawn and react to each other.

From the cute schoolteacher Steve takes a shine to (the transcendant Rosemarie DeWitt) to the ultimate reveal about Dustin, everything feels very real, everybody an actual person the script doesn't ascribe stereotypes to.

If there's one fault apart from the slight conventionality, it's that there are a few too many players in this ensemble and we don't see enough of them. In any other film it might just confuse you about what everyone has to do with the story, but here it's just because everyone feels so real you want to see them interact more.

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