Review: PROMISED LAND, A Well-Intentioned But Dramatically Inert Environmental-Issue Drama

Promised Land, the latest film from director Gus Van Sant, written by two of its actors, John Krasinski and Matt Damon, is nothing if not extremely topical. 

At its heart is the hot-button environmental issue of hydraulic fracturing, better known as "fracking," a process by which natural gas is extracted from the ground by deep drilling through shale rock formations from which the gas is released and then extracted. This practice is sold by the companies that do this as a way to reduce and eventually eliminate the U.S.'s dependence on foreign oil, as well as enrich the communities who allow their lands to be drilled. However, many environmental activists and scientists argue that the chemicals used in this process contaminate underground water, resulting in poisoned crops and animals.

Josh Fox's 2010 muckraking documentary Gasland is the best known previous cinematic treatment of the issue, and at first blush Promised Land, with all the Biblical implications embedded in its title, would seem to be its fictional counterpart. And certainly, some companies invested in the fracking business have reportedly been preparing PR actions to counteract the potential threat this film may pose to their bottom line. Also, a number of conservative commentators have noted that one of the backers of Promised Land is Image Nation Abu Dhabi, leading these conspiracy-minded folks to speculate that the film is part of some nefarious plot by an oil exporting nation to turn American public opinion against fracking.

However, nervous Nellies from the fracking industry and right-wing rabble rousers have little to fear from Promised Land making much impact on this debate. While initially it does a good job setting up its characters and the moral and environmental stakes for all involved, it ultimately stumbles badly into a transparent and painfully obvious tale of redemption that feels predetermined from the start. The film's late passages, especially, expose the basic inauthenticity and formulaic nature at the heart of its scenario, with a dramatically undercooked script by Krasinski and Damon that could have used a few more revisions to more effectively strengthen the impact of its earnest message.

Promised Land centers around the moral journey of Steve Butler (Matt Damon), a fast-rising salesman for Global Crosspower Solutions, a large energy corporation whose bread and butter is earned by sending smooth talkers such as Steve to rural towns to persuade landowners to lease the drilling rights of their farmland for natural gas mining. These farm owners are promised great riches and easy ways out of financial distress, while essentially being cheated by the company, which usually severely undervalues the true worth of the natural resources underneath their land. Steve is especially adept at persuasion, being a former Iowa farmboy who can relate to his sales prospects and can speak their language. He even dresses the part, wearing flannel and an ancient pair of work boots to better blend in with the natives. 

On the heels of receiving a big promotion, Steve, along with his work/witty banter partner Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand), arrives at the town of McKinley, a place hit especially hard by the recession. It would seem to be a walk in the park to sell the townsfolk on letting Global come in and drill, baby, drill, especially with Steve willing to monetarily grease the palms of local politicians to ease the process.

However, things get complicated very fast with the presence of avuncular retired schoolteacher Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook, playing the elder statesman like no one else can), who has a way with Googling, and manages to make things difficult for Steve and Sue by forcing an upcoming community vote on allowing Global in their town. Even more formidable opposition comes in the form of Dustin Noble (John Krasinski), an environmental activist who rolls into town armed with scary pictures of dead cows and even scarier show-and-tell demonstrations for school kids on the evils of fracking. The addition of Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt), a beautiful schoolteacher over whom Steve and Dustin tussle, severely challenges Steve's ability to keep things under control, eventually forcing him into a place where he must question everything he once believed in and spent so much of his life working toward.

Besides its environmental hot topic, one of the main selling points of Promised Land is the re-teaming of co-writer Damon with his Good Will Hunting director Van Sant, with Krasinski subbing for his old buddy Ben Affleck. Krasinski actually originated this project with novelist/screenwriter Dave Eggers, later bringing it to Damon to begin their collaboration. The original story concerned wind energy; when that idea proved to not be a viable one, Damon and Krasinski cycled through various scenarios concerning coal mining, oil drilling, and Alaskan salmon harvesting until they hit upon the idea of centering it on fracking. 

This, I think, points to the fatal weakness at the heart of the script, and consequently the film itself: it's a collection of atomized dramatic tropes and character types, rather than an organic, fully living object. This is most evident in the fact that Steve is really the only fully fleshed out character here; everyone else seems underwritten and underdeveloped. This puts the focus on the central redemptive story of the cool corporate shark becoming an actual human being, but it robs Promised Land of the dynamism and interesting dramatic tension that results from characters that are fully realized rather than simply hollow foils for the protagonist. It's a testament to the skills of the very good actors assembled here that they are able to breathe some life into their shallowly conceived characters, most notably McDormand as Damon's wisecracking sidekick and Holbrook as the voice of venerable wisdom.

Gus Van Sant, along with his cinematographer Linus Sandgren, gives the proceedings a handsome look, the slowly decaying small-town atmosphere of mom-and-pop stores, local bars, and vast stretches of farmland forming an aesthetically pleasing, updated Frank Capra landscape. However, all this nice packaging doesn't change the fact that what is inside is far less dramatically satisfying than it could have been; far more attention should have been paid to creating a truly compelling story worthy of the urgency and seriousness of the environmental issue at its center.

Promised Land opens in limited release in the U.S. on Friday, December 28, and goes nationwide on January 4.
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