I went into this film with fairly low expectations because the ratings on most websites range from mediocre to low. After seeing the film I understand why, but wholeheartedly disagree; van Sant delivers us yet another fantastic piece of cinema to add to his impressive career. The primary reason that the critic and even user scores are so skewed is because this phenomenon generally happens with any film dealing with a politically or environmentally "hot" topic. In this case the film's plot revolves around natural gas extraction, and the hot button issue is "fracking".
It seems a bit unfortunate that any time a film's plot happens to revolve around something that causes great emotional or political response, the general consensus as far as critique is to flippantly disregard any and all cinematic or dramatic aspects of the film and almost single-mindedly rate the film on how well it "handled the issue" (whichever side you may be on). I personally tend to take the complete opposite approach and disregard the moral or social impacts, instead focusing primarily on the cinema and drama presented to me. Frankly, if you're looking for a factually sound, eye-opening, moralist type of experience, watch a documentary on fracking. There are plenty. This film is a drama, and it does not pretend to be anything but. In fact that's what I like so much about it. The film takes a very relatable and real pretext, the modern small American struggling farm, and uses this as a catalyst for character building, emotion, and some stunningly beautiful shots, all while maturely painting several different angles and perspectives on the issue. There are certainly issues raised about farmland, corporations, natural gas, fracking, and several others, and these may seem like the forefront here, but characters are always the forefront of any true drama.
The main character was played by Matt Damon, and despite him being the same charming, funny, intelligent, confident guy we've seen in just about all of his films, beneath that front he does a great job of portraying self-doubt and morality throughout. The contrast of his supreme sense of morality and making good decisions with the highly morally questionable task he was sent to do is used very very effectively. He is constantly questioning whether or not he is making the right decision. This self-questioning is not done in a tacky verbal manner, but instead via the language of cinema; his facial expressions and van Sant's capturing of his internal struggle say enough. The acting and directing of this were both superb. You also really feel that Damon's character falls in love with the whole town, and perhaps a woman from there too. The relation he had with this woman, played well by Rosemarie DeWitt, had a subtle affection to it despite us never really seeing it come into fruition. I respect that the cheap route was not taken wherein they fall fervently in love or even make love, but instead the undertones of affection were plain enough to see. This is, once again, great cinematic technique. I also enjoyed that as soon as Damon's character was presented with a tricky situation, he was very quick to choose the right call. The film did not putz around for several scenes where he's flirting with the notion of being the "bad guy"; I feel that many films take this route whether or not it even fits and it simply feels trite by now. His character did not fit that role, and redemption was unnecessary in this film, thus I'm glad it was not present.
John Krasinski's acting really surprised me, as I had never really seen him in a worthy, serious role. But now I have, and this man can act. His role was a downright ruthless antagonist, completely shutting down Damon's character at every corner, even going so far as to take away his love interest. I must also give him, and of course Damon, writing credit, as most of the dialog throughout the film was terrific.
Frances McDormand played a supporting role, in a literal sense; she was there to support Damon's character, as both a mother-like figure and coworker. The comedic relief from her worked well, e.g. when Damon's character picks up the phone and answers it with "Alice?" (Alice was the quirky attractive girl he met at the town bar), McDormand's character answers, "No, but I'm in room 23 if you're desperate". Excellent, funny writing.
Naturally, Gus van Sant took advantage of the beauty of country land to deliver us some breathtakingly gorgeous shots. But it was not purely the scenery that delivered. Even in the beginning of the film before arrival into the town, when Damon's character is sitting down at a restaurant talking with a corporate head about the trip, van Sant makes great use of a mirror behind them both. There is true artistry in much of this cinematography, and many of the angles and camera motions bespeak events happening in the story and to the characters. Danny Elfman's soundtrack composition was perfect and fitting once again, and I was very glad to see his name on the opening credits, as it indicated the same director / writer / composer trio that Good Will Hunting had (not to mention star too), so I knew I was in for a treat.
Another great aspect about the film was that it portrayed many different sides of the natural gas issue well. The film took more of a third-person, observational viewpoint, rather than diving in with very much bias (until the end anyway). I respected that it did not feel so much like we took anyone's side, but instead we understood where each and every person was coming from. A great job was done at keeping all levels of understanding and empathy fairly even across the spectrum of belief. Damon's character is just trying to do his job, but so is everyone else, their jobs in this case being to find out what's best for their town. You can understand the emotional weight behind each and every conversation, and many of the monologues were brilliantly written, even convincing. The interesting thing about many of the side characters who weren't the main focus was that these people seem to parallel quite a bit with real-life viewers and critics of the film. Many people in the film did not agree with Damon's character coming into the town, so they didn't give him a chance. In the same fashion, many real people who may not agree with the film's "message" or political aspects (whichever side) will not give it a chance either.
The primary aspect that was lacking about the film was the twist ending; the film left off on an overly cynical note, almost leaving you feeling too empty and dry afterward, and to be honest, almost completely counteracting and invalidating all of the praise regarding its third-person nature. That's not to say the ending was horribly written, as it was admittedly a pretty big surprise and left you a bit awestruck, but it did change the story in a far too jarringly cynical manner for what one would expect at that point, and at great cost. The film's aforementioned good sense of portraying all sides of the issue in a surprisingly level-headed manner is lost here, as the ending pretty clearly chooses a moral side. However, a film is not just an ending, therefore all praise still holds water and this is a great film.
4 out of 5 found this helpful.
Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.