Promised Land drills into its subject on Blu-ray with an edition that at least presents the earnest film with a solid high definition picture and sound. There’s not much in the way of extras here, and the movie isn’t that substantial in the end, but there’s a good concept here. Written by and starring John Krasinski and Matt Damon (from a story by Dave Eggers), the movie deals with a large corporation trying to take over the land of a rural town, showing how the situation boils down to the personalities involved. Along the way, director Gus Van Sant takes every opportunity to show us the beauty of the land, in the many vista shots we see and in the faces of the real local residents featured in nearly every scene of the movie. The movie doesn’t quite earn a recommendation, but it’s definitely an interesting try at the material.
Distributed By: N/A
Video Resolution and Encode: 1080P/AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Audio: English 5.1 DTS, Spanish 5.1 DTS
Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish, French
Run Time: 1 Hr. 47 Mins.
Package Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy, UltraVioletBlu-ray Case in Sleeve
Disc Type: BD50 (dual layer)
Release Date: 04/23/2013
Promised Land is a decent, earnest movie that has its heart in the right place, even if it doesn’t ultimately succeed. Matt Damon and Frances McDormand play Steve and Sue, corporate salespeople dispatched to small rural towns around America to buy up drilling rights for a natural gas giant called Global Crosspower Solutions. In this case, they’ve come to a little town in Pennsylvania, offering the local farmers a chance to make a little money during bad economic times if they’ll just agree to allow Global to start fracking on their land. Before the salespeople get very far, however, they are challenged by Dustin (John Krasinski), an environmental activist who is determined to make sure the town knows the real effects of fracking. The whole thing comes to a vote by the town, with the salespeople and Dustin engaged in a war of words and personalities to try to sway the townspeople. There’s not much more to this movie than that premise. And at least in the first half hour, the movie really does work, presenting some beautiful vistas of rural Pennsylvania and some wonderful character moments for everyone, showing that director Gus Van Sant still has a knack for telling interesting local stories. But by the end of the movie, there’s a strong feeling of dissatisfaction as the movie takes the easy way out of too many of its conflicts. It’s difficult to recommend the movie due to those issues, which I’ll describe in greater detail below, but fans of Gus Van Sant and Matt Damon may want to give this a rental.
The Production Rating: 3/5
MAJOR SPOILERS HERE: So what’s the problem with the movie? It’s intelligently written and directed and it’s trying to tell an interesting and important story. The title itself, Promised Land, is actually a bit of a play on words when you think about it. There’s the “promised land” of America on the one hand, but there’s also the matter that the movie is about buying up drilling rights for “promised” land. (This is a kind of call-back to the earlier collaboration of Damon and Van Sant, Good Will Hunting. And we should be clear about the purposes of this movie. This is not the political propaganda film that some critics and pundits have accused it of being. (There was a complete campaign against this film before it even premiered, saying that it was telling falsehoods about fracking and that it was somehow really a project of the oil companies, since some of the production funds came from Abu Dhabi.) The truth is that the movie isn’t exactly about fracking. Fracking is discussed in depth, and some graphic examples are shown of its consequences. But that’s not the be-all and end-all of the movie. Promised Land is about corporate power being used on a small rural town and how the locals deal with it. The corporation could be buying the land for fracking, or they could be using it for the original focus of the screenplay, wind power. Or they could just be leveling everything and building mini-malls and condos. Think of fracking as the MaGuffin here, not the real issue. The issue at hand is that Steve and Sue are able to hoodwink most of the town in short order into doing something that may or may not be good for the locals, and then must argue their case in public against Dustin, who is similarly using the locals for his own purposes. And in the end, when we find that Dustin is just an agent for Global, the plot becomes even clearer. As Dustin puts it, the town was never going to have a real choice here. In the end, the corporation has enough money and resources to get what it wants, regardless of how the locals feel. And even if Steve turns on the company and gets the locals to vote the corporation’s wishes down, we know that they’ll just turn to the next rural area down the road and get away with it there. (Which is something that Steve warns a protesting local official early on.)
SPOILERS CONTINUE: But none of that describes what the problem is, or why the movie doesn’t work in the end. The problem is rooted in a series of basic story shortcuts, which sacrifice integrity for the interesting twist. The movie tells us that Dustin is insincere by having him compete with Steve for the affection of a local woman, by having him show up the salespeople at the local karaoke bar, and by having him act in generally annoying ways. The movie has Dustin do a graphic demonstration of the effects of fracking in a school science class, while presenting the town with a graphic photo of his family’s Nebraska farm after fracking had happened. But then the movie tells us that Dustin is lying about the photo by presenting Steve with evidence that the farm is in fact somewhere else. Before the viewer can fully absorb this, the film takes the next leap to show that Dustin is actually just another corporate agent for Global, placed in the town to make it easy for Steve and Sue to dismiss the environmental concerns and thus get the town to approve the corporation’s presence. This would work, if it weren’t for the fact that we’ve already seen Dustin do several things over and above what a real corporate agent would do in that case. If he was just there to be a false competitor, why would he go so far as to create a graphically convincing case for children in a school? Why would he spend so much time competing with Steve for the local woman? The answer is that he wouldn’t – it’s a false conflict. The twist works when you watch the movie and don’t think about it. If you try to track it backwards, the movie begins to unravel. And the conclusion, with Steve suddenly turning on his bosses, is an odd one. The character we’ve seen throughout the movie knows that a local vote against Global will not stop them, and in fact may make the situation worse. It feels good to watch him do “the right thing”, and yet the movie has already established that this is out of character for him and probably futile. There is also a minor issue that we are asked to believe that Hal Holbrook at age 88 is a local schoolteacher. We can believe him as a local gadfly, but it’s a bit of a reach to think he’s still teaching classes. And all of this is a shame because there’s a genuinely good idea here: How does a small rural town deal with a Walmart or an Exxon or some other giant company moving in and taking over the area? How can the locals see past the sales pitch? There’s also the matter of Gus Van Sant’s skill with a camera and with casting. The look of this movie is quite good – it’s really a pleasure to see the rural landscapes here and the local faces. But all of that is window dressing in the end – the heart of the movie is a good one but there’s just not enough substance here to carry things over the finish line.
Promised Land has been released simultaneously on Blu-ray and standard definition, as of April 23rd. The Blu-ray has everything from the standard DVD, and adds high definition picture and sound. The Blu-ray release includes the DVD release on a second disc within the packaging.
Promised Land is presented in a 1080p AVC 1.85:1 transfer (at an average 34 mbps) that shows off some lovely photography of the Pennsylvania locations. Scenes both by day and night, in rain and in shine, are full of detail and depth.
Video Rating: 4.5/5 3D Rating: NA
Promised Land is presented in an English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix in English (at an average 3.8 mpbs) that is a bit quieter overall than most mixes I’ve heard. Even the karaoke scenes don’t really jump out. Most of the sound, as usual, is in the front speakers, but the music and some atmospheric material makes its way to the surrounds. The subdued nature of the mix is appropriate to the movie. A Spanish DTS 5.1 mix is also included on the disc.
Audio Rating: 4/5
The Blu-ray presentation of Promised Land doesn’t have much by way of special features – just one extended scene and a short featurettte. The packaging also includes the DVD release. A digital copy is available online via pocket BLU or via a code included in the packaging.
Special Features Rating: 1/5
Extended Scene (1:52, 1080p) – This is just a minute more of an early corporate scene with Matt Damon in which the characters discuss the dissection of a frog. There’s a direct parallel between salesman Steve’s handling of the dissection matter and how he will handle the town locals, but it was likely a bit too on the nose.
The Making of Promised Land (10:38, 1080p) – This ten minute featurette mostly features quick soundbites from Matt Damon and John Krasinski as well as producer Chris Moore. (Fans of Project Greenlight may be disappointed to hear that, as with the featurette on American Reunion last year, we don’t get to see Moore throwing his weight around the set and yelling at Gus Van Sant, or better yet, Jeff Balis…) There’s not a lot of substance here, just the usual mutual compliments. Matt Damon does have one good comment about Van Sant’s reaction to his makeup. The problem here is that there’s a lot more ground that could have been covered. As originally planned, Matt Damon was going to direct this movie. The movie was originally a Warner Bros. production but wound up in turnaround before landing with Focus Features. None of that material is mentioned here, and it’s kind of crucial. No real discussion is had about the original story by Dave Eggers and what happened when it was rewritten by Krasinski and Damon. The featurette does discuss the fact that the movie was filmed on location in Pennsylvania and even includes short soundbites from some of the locals who appear in the movie. But one gets the feeling that a lot more could have been discussed. At the least, a commentary could have been done with the filmmakers. Alas, such was not the case.
My Scenes – The usual Blu-ray bookmarking feature is available here, allowing the viewer to set their own bookmarks throughout the film.
BD-Live - This Blu-ray includes access to Universal’s BD-Live online site, allowing for the viewing of trailers online.
pocket BLU – This Blu-ray includes the usual pocket BLU functionality, enabling viewers with appropriate laptop, iPad or smart phone integration to remotely control their Blu-ray player and access some of the bonus content from the separate device.
DVD Copy – A second disc is included in the package, holding the standard DVD of the movie. It contains the movie presented in standard definition in an anamorphic 1.85:1 picture with Dolby Digital 5.1 sound in English (448 kbps) as well as the English DVS track. The extended scene and the featurette are included, in standard definition. There is also a Previews menu, offering trailers for multiple other DVDs.
Digital Copy – Instructions are included in the packaging for obtaining a digital or Ultraviolet copy of the movie for your your laptop or portable device.
Subtitles are available for the film and the featurette, in English, Spanish and French. A full chapter menu is available for the film.
Promised Land is such an earnest film that you want it to be better than it is. It has appealing performances, solid direction by Gus Van Sant and a good idea at its core. It’s just that the story falters and winds up taking too many easy shortcuts to achieve greatness. The Blu-ray is lovely to look at and probably worth a rental for fans of Gus Van Sant, Matt Damon and John Krasinski. And, frankly, any movie that features Titus Welliver as the owner of a local shop called “Rob’s Guns, Groceries, Guitars and Gas” really can’t be all bad.
Overall Rating: 3/5
Reviewed By: Kevin EK
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