Promised Land, not to be confused with the Meg Ryan/Kiefer Sutherland film of 1987 (I saw it, but I remember nothing about it) or the Bruce Springsteen song, is a well-made film about the conundrum of fracking–the extraction of natural gas by destroying shale beds with a variety of chemicals. The film, written by stars Matt Damon and John Krasinski, comes clearly down on the side that fracking is a bad thing, and while I may agree, I found the film to be constructed in such a by-the-numbers fashion that it seems pat.
Damon stars as Steve Butler, a consultant for a big, bad energy company. Trouble is, he thinks of himself as a good guy. More than once he says, “I’m not the bad guy.” From a farming community in Iowa, he knows the family farm is pretty much dead, and delights in being able to offer gobs of money to farmers to escape their dire fates.
He and his partner, Frances McDormand, alight on a town in upstate New York. At first they are greeted with people with dollars signs in their eyes, but a local teacher (Hal Holbrook), who also happens to be an engineer, raises questions at a town meeting. Then an environmentalist (Krasinski) shows up, and Damon undergoes a complete meltdown.
The script does a nice job of exploring the issues of fracking, and the desperation of the farmers involved. If offered millions, I might have to think twice about taking it, even it did poison the Earth. As long as the film sticks to this, and the battle between Damon and Krasinski (and the humorous relationship between Damon and McDormand) the film is very good.
But I felt let down by a subplot detailing Damon’s rivalry with Krasinski over the attentions of the pretty teacher in town (Rosemarie DeWitt), which drags the film into the world of cliche. There is also a “gotcha” twist that, while certainly possible given the ruthlessness of corporations, seems straight out a screenwriting book.
Still, I liked the film. Gus Van Sant directs, and he makes great use of the local scenery. I’ve driven a fair share in rural New York, and while I’m not sure if it was filmed there, it sure looks like it, right down a store called “Guns Gas Guitars Groceries.” As Damon says, “Two hours outside of any city looks like Kentucky.”
Damon, one of our best actors, is spot-on. A scene in which he can’t understand why farmers won’t take the money, which he labels “Fuck you money,” is terrific, because it shows that corporate America is only considered with money–nothing else matters. McDormand, in a sidekick role, also nails it. Krasinski uses the same skill he does in playing Jim Halpert on The Office. He’s the cool guy, but he’s also a bit of an asshole.
My grade for Promised Land: B.