Promised Land (United States, 2012)

December 28, 2012
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Promised Land Poster

It's easy enough to label Promised Land as the "anti-fracking movie" because, ultimately, that's what it becomes. Before the overtly political, sloppy ending, however, there are some interesting dynamics at play here about how corporations operate and the post-Industrial Era battle between economic realities and environmental concerns. Unfortunately, much of what's good about Promised Land is easily forgotten as a result of the preachy, impossible-to-swallow final 15 minutes in which the protagonist is subjected to character assassination, the screenplay turns into a sermon, and narrative intelligence is discarded in favor of a message. It's as if the people behind Promised Land only agreed to make the movie if there was an unambiguous "policy statement" at the end, and that's what we're subjected to.

Before we arrive at the ending, however, Promised Land offers an evenhanded look at the issues associated with fracking. A process in which subterranean natural gas is released by the pulverization of shale, fracking is not new but it has gained increasing popularity as a result of the United States' increasing attempts to find oil alternatives. It has become a high profile issue in Pennsylvania and New York, where this movie takes place. In addition to providing an abundant supply of natural gas, fracking can also be a financial boon to those who lease their land (often farms) to the gas companies. There are, however, environmental concerns related to the possible contamination of water sources and the rendering of soil as unsuitable for planting. Promised Land overstates the likelihood of these negative consequences but, although isolated, they are real.

Promised Land follows the efforts of two Global Gas field operatives, Steve Butler (Matt Damon) and Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand), to secure leases on the properties in a rural community that has been identified as having significant shale deposits underground. The duo arrives with promises of good money in a time of economic hardship - as much as $2000 per acre plus a percentage of the eventual profits. Although the initial reaction to Steve and Sue's coming is positive, it turns less so when a local high school science teacher, Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook), speaks out against fracking during a community meeting. Shortly thereafter, environmental activist Dustin Noble (John Krasinski) arrives and begins charming the locals, including Alice (Rosemary DeWitt), a woman whose casual flirtation with Steve causes his heart to go pitter-patter. The bulk of the movie follows the moves and counter-moves by Steve and Dustin to win over a majority of the community before an all-important vote that will determine whether fracking is a "go" or "no go."

The movie is at its best when it focuses on the strategies employed by the Global representatives and Dustin in their attempts to win over the hearts and minds of the small-town people, whether it includes singing Springsteen, putting up posters, offering bribes, or arranging a country fair. Ultimately, Promised Land provides a glimpse into how far big corporations will go (Global is said to be valued at $9 billion) to get what they want, although one does have to question why such an important acquisition is left in the hands of two low-level operatives. (The screenplay, however, provides an answer of sorts.)

In an attempt to present something resembling a balanced approach to a hot-button issue, Matt Damon gives a compelling pro-fracking speech that hones in on a key question: what does it matter if the integrity of the water and soil remains in place if the bank forecloses on the property and the community collapses as a result of farm subsidies drying up? The real-world question is whether the undeniable economic benefits of fracking outweigh the potential ecological issues, and Promised Land at least attempts to address this, although the answer, provided via the cheap and poorly motivated climax, is too facile.

Matt Damon gives a nice, low-key portrayal, although his interpretation of Steve is too naïve and fumbling to coincide with the "boy wonder" reputation he is introduced as having. Frances McDormand's Sue is a better rounded individual: a pragmatic woman who views what she's doing as "just a job" and whose only true concern is providing for her son's education. John Krasinski exhibits the most charisma of the three leads and shows that, despite his reputation for comedic performances, he's at home in a dramatic role.

There are times when a film can survive a misstep even if it occurs at the end. That's not the case with Promised Land, where the misstep is so damaging that it undermines all that comes before it. The best one can say about the production is that it was made with the good intentions, but we all know how the saying goes about the road to hell and what it's paved with.

Promised Land (United States, 2012)

Director: Gus Van Sant
Cast: Matt Damon, John Krasinski, Frances McDormand, Rosemarie DeWitt, Hal Holbrook
Screenplay: John Krasinski & Matt Damon
Cinematography: Linus Sandgren
Music: Danny Elfman
U.S. Distributor: Focus Features
Run Time: 1:47
U.S. Release Date: 2012-12-28
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1