So far as I’ve seen, the kerfuffle surrounding the funding and production of Promised Land has received more attention than the film itself. So in case you haven’t heard, the film portrays the process of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” in a negative light. People such as Phelim MacAleer, director of the documentary FrackNation, and residents of Armstrong County, Pennsylvania, where much of the movie was filmed, have accused the producers of exaggerating if not totally fabricating the dangers of fracking.
However, the biggest bombshell came when the Heritage Foundation revealed that one of the film’s backers is connected to OPEC, sparking outcries that there’s a conflict of interest. OPEC, of course, being a supplier of oil would have a lot to gain if the U.S. outlawed fracking altogether or at least had a good amount of public resentment.
Though anyone actually interested in following the story will see that the connection is dubious, and even if it were ironclad, so what? As much faith as I have in people not to get their information from a fictional film, I’m more confident that not many will see it. For that matter and despite all the hoopla, fracking really isn’t that big of a plot point. It’s discussed, and some dangers are touched on, but the larger villain is the old standby, Big Business.
Anyway, on the movie. Matt Damon plays Steve Butler, a salesman with a corporate mining firm that wants to buy up the drilling rights in a small town. While the residents are gung-ho at first, driven by the promise of becoming overnight millionaires, Butler meets resistance from a number of others with intentions both good and bad. The mayor for one wants a big bribe, and the scene where he meets with Damon in a small coffee shop to negotiate the size of his bribe is a standout for its progressive lack of subtlety.
On the other side of town, there’s schoolteacher Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook), the stereotypical town crank/wise man who warns of the risks fracking poses at an informal, informative session. He rallies the town to vote on the matter instead of simply letting the landowners sell, and Butler’s competence is thus under heavy scrutiny from his company. Added to that is the arrival of Dustin Noble (John Krasinski, who co-wrote the screenplay), an environmental activist who wages war Butler by further inciting the townsfolk and posting signs in every driveway of dead cows poisoned by toxic runoff.
Butler and his partner Sue (Frances McDormand) meander about the town coaxing people into signing away their land and seducing the locals Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt) and Rob (Titus Welliver). Noble talks to school kids and karaokes his way into their hearts, while also attempting to seduce Alice. That’s correct. Right when the film’s on the verge of becoming a decent thriller, it wanders into a romantic semi-comedy.
Damon’s a likeable guy, and the script wants us to like him so much that it drops any interesting and intelligent opportunities to all but make us forget he’s kind of the bad guy. It gets to the point that the big reveal at the end is more tying up loose threads than delivering a big surprise. There’s a scene where Damon’s confronted at the local bar by a group of angry townsfolk. They snarl and sneer him into delivering a speech on how he’ll never understand why they’re trying to piss away such a massive opportunity.
And it falls back so hard on evil-corporate double talk that I couldn’t help but think that the larger opportunity was missed by the screenwriters. Here’s the perfect chance to come up with something like the “Greed is good” speech from Wall Street, and they botch it unforgivably. That’s not to say that a film can’t take sides on an issue, but it’s the strong film that makes its bad guy convincing. Sant and his writers are just shooting barrel-fish. And they do it throughout the whole film.
Promised Land, like a lot of movies this year, has potential but chickens out. Gus Van Sant is no stranger to controversy, but he’s just not trying here. Fracking is left off the table for a broader and easier target. It’s not outright dishonest, but it is a disappointment that there’s barely any attempt at a debate. Similarly, the rivalry between Butler and Noble is lifeless. Krasinski plays up his role as the congenial smartass, but goes so overboard with the cockiness that he seems to be from another planet.
There’s a moment early on that has some fun with how much of an outsider he is in town, but then every other time we see him he’s talking to Damon. How he could convince an entire town to pass up millions and get in the schoolmarm’s drawers is an incredible stretch that we have to take on faith. Yeah, Krasinski and Damon are charismatic guys, and that’s just what their characters call for, but they come off as mugging more for the audience than anyone else in the flick.