Promised Land: Gus Van Sant’s productive career-toggles between indie bona fides and earnest studio projects recalls Steven Soderbergh, patron saint of one-for-me, one-for-them-that’s-really-also-for-me genre-hopping — but if anything, Van Sant’s needle jumps around far more wildly. His mid-aughts “death trilogy”—Gerry, Elephant, and Last Days—is pure-art experimentation, yet his most mainstream work, most famously Good Will Hunting, is squarer and more conventional than almost any Soderbergh movie outside Erin Brockovich. Matt Damon has bounced around with him, through Van Sant’s mainstream breakthrough and his stunning wilderness-wandering — he even cowrote both of them! He cowrites and stars in Promised Land (out wider this weekend after a limited year-end release), too, with Office drone John Krasinski supporting on both counts, and it’s an odd synthesis of those two Van Sants: the story, about a natural gas company with sights set on a small town in Pennsylvania, and filmmaking are straight ahead, almost Eastwoodian in their lack of fuss, but the subject matter (fracking) and scale (small) are Participant Media-style indie.
Accordingly, Damon finds himself in the George Clooney part: a slick, successful guy discovering his soul. Damon and his coworker Frances McDormand (great, as always; is there a better actress around?) roll into town, picking out flannel at a local store (which also sells guns and guitars), eager to ingratiate themselves. As it turns out, it’s not entirely necessary: plenty of people are happy to sell their land for fracking, as the town’s farming industry is on the wane. Krasinski plays a mysterious environmentalist who comes to town and hopes to further his own, friendlier agenda, raising the hackles of many community members. Thinks begin to look less rosy for Damon; essentially, this is an underdog-versus-corporation story, but from the bad guy’s point of view.
Damon works this flip well, with his innate likability (and genuine belief that he’s not screwing these people over, at least not too much), set against his terrible agenda. But after a certain point, even with some unexpected developments, the movie becomes an ongoing argument between economic and environmental ruin—interesting, and given voice by a talented cast (as well as some nicely honed dialogue from Damon and Krasinski; they have ears for incidental small talk that recalls some of the best Good Will Hunting bits), but without truly surprising places to go. It’s a modest little movie that won’t bother anyone.
Texas Chainsaw 3D: Part of me wishes this was a bait-and-switch documentary about an actual chainsaw from Texas that happens to be rendered in 3D, not the second remake of Texas Chainsaw Massacre of the past decade. Another part of me wishes this was a special tenth-anniversary re-release of the slick-with-grime 2003 version starring Jessica Biel remastered in 3D, not because that movie is particularly good, but you know, fiscal responsibility! These Texas Chainsaw movies cost money! I will be exercising my own budgetary restraints by maybe not going to see 2013’s inaugural horror movie, despite my rich history of seeing White Noise, Boogeyman, and Season of the Witch on their respective first-January-weekend releases.