PROMISED LAND Movie Review
There’s a scene in Promised Land — Gus Van Sant‘s Oscar-bait drama about rural America and fracking — where John Krasinski‘s character Dusty Noble explains the intricacies of fracking to a group of children before burning down a model farm to show why fracking is bad.
It’s a visually powerful scene, which is probably why it made it into the trailer, but it’s also a metaphor for the entire film, because sitting through Promised Land feels like the filmmakers are explaining fracking to us as if we are children.
Now, let me be clear: I didn’t expect a documentary when I bought my ticket and I didn’t want to spend the film’s brisk 106 minute run-time getting preached too. Similarly, I understand that liberties have to be taken to enhance those stories which are inspired by true events or at least true circumstances, but when you make a film about the soul of rural America and the promise of a new-century gold rush, one need’s to give us a clearer picture of what’s at stake.
What do we get instead? A hardly compelling and over-simplified drama that falls off a cliff in the third-act thanks to an obvious and needless twist.
We also get a thoroughly disappointing love triangle between Krasinski’s scarred environmentalist, Rosemarie DeWitt‘s playful townie teacher, and Matt Damon‘s character, Steve Butler — the ambitious energy company huckster who fancies himself a savior, but has to slather himself in bumpkin mud (or blue collar clothing) in order to earn people’s trust.
What does Butler do with that trust once he’s earned it with big smiles and promises of wealth and an easy future? He lowballs those poor people while stealing their land, but it’s totally fine since their way of life is dead or dying and their only salvation comes from raping the hell out of that land.
Really, after the lack of pertinent details (and a fairy tale setup that makes it seem like when people from the natural gas company come to town, every single home owner strikes it rich, when that is far from so), Damon’s progression from dutiful employee and happy warrior to the inverse of that stands as the film’s next biggest disappointment.
We spend 100 minutes with Damon as he pushes back against Noble, trying to out “aw shucks” him, and slam open the door to Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale windfall for his company, but it only takes the last few moments of the film and the aforementioned third act twist to spin him around 180 degrees and make him realize the film’s ultimate message: fracking is bad.
Why is fracking bad? Because Gus Van Sant and co-writers Damon and Krasinski say it is and that’s supposed to be enough.
Why is it really bad? I’m no expert, so I can’t say for certain, but you should read New York Times’ reporter Ian Urbania‘s Drilling Down series on this potentially hazardous, allegedly under-regulated industry in an effort to educate yourself if you’re interested. Also, the “lighting tap water on fire” thing is a thing that happened in the documentary Gasland, experts believe fracking can and has caused earthquakes in Ohio and Oklahoma, and this is hardly a new concern (there is more than one town with gripes about fracking), but make your own conclusions.
What are my conclusions about this film? Well, the film looks fantastic and the acting is — with the exception of Krasinski, who keeps trying too hard to break out of the affable-guy birdcage that he finds himself in thanks to The Office (see: Nobody Walks… wait, no, don’t do that.) — a highlight.
Damon is likable, but also clearly deluding himself. My issue with his character’s transformation has nothing to do with the way it’s presented on the screen, it has everything to do with it’s rapidness and that falls on Damon (and Krasinski) the writer, not the guy in front of the camera.
The two best performances come from Frances McDormand — whose down-to-earth and un-invested energy company rep does a better job of cutting closer to what these people likely are: plain folks with kids and a job, not cartoonish evil-doers or misguided idealists — and Hal Holbrook. At almost 88, Holbrook is still a force, and his role as an engineer turned teacher who throws a wrench into Damon’s character’s methodical and smooth operation is my favorite part of the film. He’s outstanding, as always, but I do wish they would have used his well-meaning, take-no-shit character to feed us more on the debate about fracking rather than turn him into a tropey, sage senior, through whose eyes Damon’s character partially see’s the light.
So, what’s the bottom line when it comes to Promised Land? In my view, this film doesn’t entirely know what it wants to be when it grows up. On one hand, clearly the filmmakers want to start a conversation, but they trip over their tongues and wind up offering little more than a skewed and very basic primer on an extremely important economic, geological, and environmental issue.
People should be talking about fracking, but this film shouldn’t be viewed as anything more than a ham-handed, slightly condescending tale about people who are being forced to choose between a violent evolution and rotting on the vine.
These people surely exist in the darkness of a world that mostly sits unaware and this is their story, but it also isn’t because it fails so grandly to convey the waning hope and the desperation that they face and the hazards of the choices that they have laid out in front of them on a kitchen table with a man sitting across from them with a pen and a bunch of sweet sounding promises.
Hopefully, someday, someone else will try again to tell their story, because, in the words of Whittier: “For all sad words of tongue and pen, The saddest are these, ‘It might have been'”.