Mark Reviews Movies

Promised Land


2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Gus Van Sant

Cast: Matt Damon, Frances McDormand, Rosemarie DeWitt, John Krasinski, Titus Welliver, Hal Holbrook

MPAA Rating: R (for language)

Running Time: 1:47

Release Date: 12/28/12 (limited); 1/4/13 (wide)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | December 27, 2012

Everyone wants to be the hero in his or her own story, or perhaps it's better said that no one wants to be the villain in his or her own story. For someone who has spent his entire life trying to do what he believes is best for others, the very idea that someone might think he is on the wrong side of an issue—and not only wrong but also, in some eyes, evil—is a powerful force. Promised Land deals partly with the topic of hydraulic fracturing or "fracking," as the process of using water and an assortment of chemicals to release natural gas from deposits thousands of feet below the Earth's surface has become popularly known, but it is simply the battleground for a host of conflicts.

There is the economic one, which pits the idea of a traditional way of life in a rural town (farming) with the influence of industrialism and the promise of an economic boom that having a big business enterprise in the area could bring. The movie's central character Steve Butler (Matt Damon), a salesman for a natural gas company, is firmly on the side of the latter; he has seen too many small towns hold true to their values, only to wind up left behind when the local economy inevitably fails. He promises millions of dollars to property owners now for drilling rights to their land; if—or, as he believes, when—the town comes upon hard times, his company will not be generous in their prices.

The environmental one is clear, and it's voiced by Dustin Noble (John Krasinski, who co-wrote the screenplay with Damon), an environmental activist from a small organization that has photos of what fracking did to his family's farm (dead cows in a field) and a science demonstration for the local school of what could—or, as he believes, will—happen if fracking becomes the norm in their town. It involves a model farm, combustible fluids, and fire. The school's science teacher Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook) is skeptical, too, but he wants people to understand the positives and negatives of the plan, allow them time to think, and put it to a vote in the near future.

This is what sets Steve on a third and the most intriguing conflict in the movie. He may have heard some horror stories about the process he sells to people eager to make a ridiculous profit for doing nothing; if he has, he never questioned the rightness of his work, let alone the business practices of the company for which he works.

They have treated him too well over the years, with a promotion on the way if he can seal this one, easy series of sales; he also knows far too well what happens when people are too stubborn in their ways to accept a good thing when it's right in front of them—a story he refuses to tell every time he brings it up. He has the boots, passed down from his grandfather, to prove that he's the real deal, no matter how many pairs of jeans and flannel shirts he and his partner Sue (Frances McDormand) have to buy from local general stores to look like an ordinary, hard-working folks.

Everything goes without a hitch until the science teacher puts forward his concerns at a town meeting and Dustin comes into town, convincing people to put up anti-fracking signs in their front yards and plastering posters across the door of Steve's hotel room. The town begins to turn on him and the idea. People who signed contracts begin to question whether or not they really want to go through with it; others who weren't sure in the first place become openly antagonistic toward Steve. The only ones still enthusiastic about the prospect aren't sitting on much in terms of gas reserves. A local teacher named Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt), with whom Steve has had a few flirtatious encounters, starts cooling toward him. His mantra quickly becomes, "I'm not a bad guy."

Director Gus Van Sant keeps the movie's focus on Steve's ever-growing crisis of conscience, even when the screenplay seems to veer into territory that either seems to have no place (Steve's never-burgeoning relationship with Alice is unnecessary—not to mention Sue's with a local man—given how many people have a similar or worse reaction to him once Dustin starts spreading his propaganda) or puts everything into terms of on-the-nose simplicity. The most egregious of the latter parts comes with the sequence of events immediately leading up to the town's vote. There's a pair of back-to-back twists that alter our perspective on one of the characters, making one side of the argument look dishonest (The lie is only about a single specific; the validity of the complaint is still present) before confirming that the other is even worse (In putting forward evidence against their cause, they're not too intelligent, either, but fortunately for them, no one notices).

Promised Land is smart to avoid staging a debate on fracking (The screenplay covers a lot of the bases on both sides, and it's difficult to ignore the movie's final stance) but instead to use that dispute as the springboard for a character study. It's a rocky one, though, that only becomes shakier as it progresses.

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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