“Promised Land” Barely Cracks the Surface

Promised Land, the new environmental drama from eco-buddies Matt Damon and John Krasinski, tries really hard to be an important film – and that is precisely why it fails. This is a message movie: its only reason to exist is to educate the public about the environmental dangers of natural gas extraction. But in these types of movies, the message must emerge naturally from the characters and plot, instead of the other way around. Promised Land is populated with hastily-drawn caricatures and one ludicrous third-act plot twist, constantly reminding us that the film is more of a statement and less of a story.

Here is what it gets right: for about half of its running time, the film is honest about the hard environmental decisions our society faces. Can we turn down the quick buck now to protect our environment for future generations? It’s the right question, but the film doesn’t earn its answer. Instead, it takes the easy way out – exaggerating the evil of the natural gas industry to serve a narrative purpose, and neither the film nor the anti-fracking movement are any better for it.

For the uninitiated, “fracking” is the process of extracting natural gas from deep in the earth by injecting water, sand, and chemicals into shale rock, which then breaks up, releasing the gas. Natural gas is depicted by supporters as a clean energy source that could reduce the U.S.’s reliance on foreign oil, but controversy over its environmental impact went national with Josh Fox’s documentary, Gasland. The clip of a man lighting his tap water on fire seemed to strike a chord.

The federal government is largely staying out of the debate, but the battle rages on in the states. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is set to make a highly-anticipated decision about in-state fracking in early 2013. And earlier this year, Pennsylvania state legislators passed a controversial law allowing doctors to get data from the state about local fracking if they see symptoms in their patients suggestive of contamination, but it does not allow those doctors to share this data with their patients. This so-called “doctor gag rule” is currently being challenged by a group of Pennsylvania physicians.

Not coincidentally, rural Pennsylvania is the setting for Promised Land.  Matt Damon plays Steve Butler, a superstar natural gas salesman, who uses his small-town background to convince farmers hit hard by the failing economy to sign over their land for fracking. It is a lucrative gig, and Butler and his partner (Frances McDormand) are good at it; these farmers are desperate to save their homes and provide for their families, and Butler throws around numbers big enough to silence any worries about the impact fracking may have on their land.

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Damon’s nuanced and deeply-felt performance is the best thing about the movie. In the hands of a lesser actor, his character would seem simplistic, but Damon consistently finds the unusual angles. The rest of the cast doesn’t fare as well. The supporting characters – the town folk  – exist merely as plot devices used to reflect Butler’s changing opinions about his work. The elderly science teacher rouses the town in opposition to Butler’s presence – and then disappears for much of the film.  Rosemarie DeWitt, always a welcome presence, shows up as a cute local who drives a personal wedge between Butler and his professional adversary, a charming environmentalist with the far-too-perfect name of Dustin Noble (John Krasinski).

The simplicity of these characters, however, is more than a narrative problem – it also dampens the movie’s message. The townspeople are portrayed as passive and desperate, and so their destinies are completely dependent on Butler’s moral whims. Yes, of course, we are required to be emotionally moved when he has his inevitable moral epiphany about the nature of his work. But if the filmmakers sought to rouse people to the anti-fracking cause, they would have been better off empowering those characters who would be most impacted by it.

Still, Promised Land saves its biggest mistake for last. The first hour presents a fairly balanced look at the issue. Our sympathies are properly tested when Noble arrives on the scene; we are won over by his sunny disposition and altruistic motives, especially when compared to Butler’s ugly desperation (it is a refreshing to see a star like Damon be so unlikeable in a role). But all pretense of balance is jettisoned by a third-act twist that favors the conventions of commercial filmmaking over the nuance that the story requires. I won’t spoil it here, but by the end of the film, we see the natural gas industry as not only greedy but also conspiratorially evil, on a par with a lesser Bond villain.

Is the industry capable of the twisted deeds with which Promised Land charges them? Possibly. But why portray them as evil when you could simply show them to be destructive? Wouldn’t that be enough? At times, Promised Land feels like a liberal version of this year’s education drama Won’t Back Down, which was demonized in the press for its perceived anti-union message. That film also gave equal voice to both sides in the first half, before succumbing to commercial conventions with a third-act showdown that vilified the teachers’ unions. Promised Land makes the same mistake. Perhaps the lesson here is that commercial filmmaking simply does not lend itself to thoughtful exploration of difficult issues. Hollywood requires heroes and villains and has little use for gray areas. To find the truth, sometimes you have to dig a little deeper.

My Rating: Skip it Altogether

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