Release: Friday, January 4, 2013
This is ‘from the director of Good Will Hunting,‘ eh? Well. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .um. . . .what happened? I’d hate to be the one to put it like this, but the discovery process — getting to know this film — is a lot better than eventually knowing it. I should have let this one be a stranger.
The initial impression — that it’s pretty funny and warmly inviting with a trustworthy cast and quiet, rural setting — is rather misleading. Promised Land is a lot like a roast dinner you left on the stove overnight and are rediscovering 24 hours later. It was very good at first, but once it settled awhile it lost its flavor and leaves something to be desired.
While I love John Krasinski and am warming to Matt Damon’s charm, there is a really awkward non-chemistry between the two that affect this movie profoundly. Although both main characters here are likable enough, the problem runs deeper than what’s on the screen. Flimsy scriptwriting and cliched rhetoric drop this potentially hard-hitting drama from the “A” grade it should have received, to the “C-” it ends up earning, not to mention a twist late in the third act that threatens the credibility of the entire thing.
Matt Damon stars as Steve Butler, a nice enough guy who works for a major natural gas company called Global Crosspower. Together with his partner, a typically dour-faced Frances McDormand as Sue Thomason, the two are trying to sell rights to drilling for natural gas in one particular town named McKinley. The generic and rundown white-painted buildings are intended to represent just about any small-town farming community in America.
The company, with large thanks to Steve and Sue’s incredible skill-set, has successfully staked itself in many towns nearby and similar to McKinley, but here its efforts to expand further are met with heavy resistance. When a basketball game at the local high school ends up doubling as a platform for the few citizens of McKinley to speak their mind on the subject, the issue of ‘fracking’ is brought up.
‘Fracking,’ short for hydraulic fracturing, is the method through which companies like the fictional Global Crosspower extract natural gas buried in layers of rock beneath the surface. Conceptually, it seems to check out okay. But its practical implications are something of a controversy and this film aims at getting to the core of that. Ironically, it only ends up scratching the surface.
A steadfast performance by legendary Hal Holbrook, playing the part of an informed citizen who was once an engineer for Boeing, first brings up this delicate issue, and at the same time helps to bring some emotion to the scene. He directs a few questions at Steve, who continues to argue that the town is in no financial position to argue against their presence.
It doesn’t help their cause when a young, enthusiastic environmentalist named Dustin Noble (Krasinski) from another blip on the map, stumbles in through the thick smoke of open mic night at the town bar. You gotta give this kid some credit for trying, but his sudden appearance is so magical it detracts from the point he’s trying to make: if the townspeople are with him, and against Steve and Sue, they can save their environment. His claim is that in his home town most livestock and plantlife were killed off due to chemicals used in the drilling process. People have become sick from it as well. Dustin continues to push a completely logical, fact-based argument against fracking. And at the end, he even seems to maintain enough fortitude to jump into a popular tune, which seems to rouse the bar into a singing, dancing party when it was formerly a rather hostile little gathering of rednecks. It would seem, at this point, Steve and Sue (who are both in the bar witnessing this whole show) are the favorites to lose the battle of McKinley.
There’s not a doubt in my mind whether Gus Van Sant should have made a ‘popcorn-friendly’ flick on such a controversial topic. Finding sources of energy — specifically, extracting for natural gas — has its undeniable pitfalls and its good to have a comment on that in a less formal setting than a documentary or docu-drama styled television special. As Van Sant put it himself, “This film has a lot of serious things going on in it but it’s very entertaining as well.” I’m not so sure about ‘very’ entertaining bit, but of all things, I do know that it’s not in favor of the act of drilling for gas.
It’s politicking would have resonated stronger and might have made my list of ‘good’ films had the direction in the final act not gone completely to shit. Nevermind the fact that for whatever reason the director allowed both his stars to languish in a sea of platitudes from start to finish. Both Steve and Dustin are walking cliches of every discussion you’ve ever had on the subject of drilling for gas. You might even go so far as to say they are models for any number of environmental concerns and controversies. Sure, the performances are likable (aside from Sue Thomason. . . .however, that’s mainly due to my disdain for anything Frances McDormand), but considering Sant and Damon were on the set of Good Will Hunting together, it’s a shock to see such a mediocre effort put forth here.
Recommendation: Promised Land, while never rising to meet our expectations — I dare say that I may speak for any environmental activists in the audience — is just satisfying enough to warrant the drive out to the theater and parting ways with ten bucks. As far as getting some questions answered about the nature of big business in America, though, you’d be better off going with a documentary on the subject.
Running Time: 106 mins.
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