Promised Land Review: Big Fracking Deal

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Promised Land Review: Big Fracking Deal

By Daniel Carlson | Film Reviews | December 28, 2012 | Comments ()


Promised Land is a frustrating film that falls victim to an unfortunate and predictable paradox: the closer it comes to dropping (or at least pausing) its narrative to make room for the message it really wants to discuss, the less interesting it becomes. It's not that a film can't, or shouldn't, engage with complicated moral or political issues; rather, it's that doing so is incredibly hard to do without abandoning character, story, and the nuts and bolts that keep the movie together in the first place. Co-written by stars Matt Damon and John Krasinski, drawn from a story Krasinski developed with Dave Eggers, and directed by Gus Van Sant, Promised Land deals nominally with an upwardly mobile executive for a natural gas company (Damon) who finds himself at odds with an environmental crusader (Krasinski). And when the film actually connects itself to its characters -- when the arguments for and against the energy at the heart of the story are being made by people with real lives, real opinions, real goals -- it feels like a potentially rewarding drama about what it means to watch your way of life die out. But too often, the film avoids complication or maturity and opts for the simplest, broadest, least believable option. It stops being a story about these people and becomes instead a tract that happens to feature these people.

What's most disappointing about the film is the way it oscillates between maturity and naivete; in some moments, it deals with complicated situations in an engaging and realistic way, while in others, it falls back on easy cliche and pandering. When Steve (Damon) and Sue (Frances McDormand), a pair of representatives for a natural gas company, arrive in the latest of hundreds of small towns to start the process of leasing valuable land from the locals, the film isn't shy about their motives or methods. Steve, who's been bucking for a promotion to the V.P. level, can run a good line about how small towns need industry if they're going to survive, which makes partnering with energy companies a natural step. He and his partner also show up in a beat-up Jeep and stock up on flannel and earth-toned gear before making the rounds, cynically joking about the color schemes and dressing habits of the small-town citizens they're about to try and fleece. Sue, though, is the film's most compelling character because she's the only one honest enough to try and figure out how to live in the tension between both sides. Yes, she works for a soulless energy company, but she's also a devoted mom who spends her spare time calling or video chatting with her son back home. "It's just a job," she reminds Steve at one point, and though there's a degree to which she's trying to convince herself that that's the case, she's also right: This isn't a cause for her, or a defining career. It's just what she's doing to get by. In a movie like this, with a story like this, that's a wonderfully fresh and interesting perspective, but it's one that's drowned out as the film goes on. McDormand plays the role so directly and casually you almost forget how good she is at, well, everything.

After a few initial successes, Steve's plan to sign energy leases for individual plots of land stalls when Frank (Hal Holbrook), a local high school science teacher who used to work for Boeing, stands up at a town hall meeting and deals Steve some damaging rhetorical blows about the dangers of drilling and the potential for environmental fallout (poisoned water supplies, etc.) when hydraulic fracturing is used to capture natural gas from below the earth's surface. He suffers another setback with the arrival of Dustin Noble (Krasinski), a one-man environmental group who's determined to stop Steve's company with a grassroots campaign of pure aw-shucks charm. Steve's determined to win his own hearts-and-minds campaign, though, and the two men square off over the fate of the town. Steve's also got his eye on Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt), a teacher he meets at a bar his first night in town, so it's no surprise hen Dustin starts courting her, too.

There's a fascinating core to Steve that the film tentatively explores before chickening out. He's a former small-town boy who knows what it means to grow up in a poor farming community, and Damon invests the character with a believable mix of anger and frustration when confronted by people who refuse to listen to his sales pitch. He wants so badly to offer a chance at a better life, to give these people the things he never had, and he makes cogent points about the dangers of pride. Time and again, I found myself nodding along with Steve: yes, this is a tough issue, and yes, people will need energy, and yes, we have a major oil and coal problem. Choices are hard all around. There's real fire in his torment and in the way he doesn't understand why these people cling to a land that so often refuses their love. The town's holdouts talk about working land they got from their fathers, who got it from their fathers before them. But go back a few more generations and you're not talking about birthrights and well-loved tractors; you're talking about land that used to belong to another nation entirely, and that was made profitable on the backs of a people bowed by chains. Where does community fit into this? What does it mean to make something your own? How do you define your life, your home, yourself? The movie comes so frustratingly close to dealing with these things before giving up entirely, which would make us damn fools for letting them pose a question and get away without at least attempting to answer it.

Saddest of all is that, despite considerable talent in front of and behind the camera, the film feels like a sham, and it doesn't trust us nearly as much as it says it does. It purports to be about the virtue of choice, but some twists late in the game make it clear that the big bad guy had a secret plan all along, which makes everything that came before that much less interesting. The energy company is pilloried for trying to play both sides, but they're no worse than the filmmakers, who pile on cheap truisms and literal flag-waving in an attempt to evoke a spirit of a corn-fed America that only exists in movies like this one. Promised Land feels too much like the kind of movie Hollywood makes to feel good about itself, a brief genuflection toward change before marching on like nothing ever happened. It looks so good from far away, but it's just the same old shuck and jive.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. You can also find him on Twitter.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • TimT

    I saw the movie a couple of nights ago and was disappointed. My main problem was that the movie has such an obvious agenda. The Matt Damon character is supposed to be the best sales guy there is in a 9 billion dollar company -- and he's just been promoted to VP. But as soon as he is confronted in a town meeting by someone with a few brains, he folds.

    The Hal Holbrook character stands up at the meeting and does a five minute rundown of everything bad about fracking. Now it's time for the Damon character to do what any sales guy learns to do -- overcome the objections. And all he can say is that yeah, fracking has some problems. Really? This is the best sales guy in the business?

    The fact is that fracking does have some problems -- you're pumping tons of water into shale that is loaded with chemicals. And there are cases of this water doing damage. On the other hand there have been thousands of these wells put up in the country in the last 10 years and there are only a handful of sites that have obvious problems. So anyone with half a brain can say, we have an approach to fracking that has solved that problem with contamination. All the Damon character can do is say, "Gosh, I don't understand the issues, but we will pay you a lot of money."

    But the bigger problem with the film is that the corporate universe they show is so fakey. The Francis McDormand character is good. She's a real person living life with as much integrity as she can given the situation. But the corporate types are played like stooges. The evil corporate manipulation subplot is laughable. And Damon comes across like a Sleeping Beauty who just woke up in a whore house.

  • Nice review. I guess it's an amazing film

  • Purplejebus

    It is never, "Just a job." What you do is who and what you are and who and what you've been. What you believe or think you believe is only reality if you are actively doing something about it.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    I don't get on board with the "it's just a job" mentality. "It's just a job" is not a valid justification.

  • BierceAmbrose’re talking about land that used to belong to another nation entirely,
    and that was made profitable on the backs of a people bowed by chains.
    Where does community fit into this? What does it mean to make something
    your own? How do you define your life, your home, yourself? The movie
    comes so frustratingly close to dealing with these things before giving
    up entirely...

    That's too bad. It's kinda fundamental. Everybody, everywhere is there because we took what we got, at some point in time & value of "we." Take your pick: European colonists, series of empires of oppressors justly thrown off or unjustly rejected depending, tribal / ethnic / racial / religious migrations (Russians, "russ" "Men who row" - a name for Vikings.), waves of this tribe or that who became the peoples, nations and empires, or in the beginning those darn African hominids who spread like every other invasive species, eventually even sneaking over an arctic land bridge to occupy the Americas.

    We are descended from people who did horrible things. We are also a virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. Or maybe not, since the apocalyptic collapse of every damn thing hasn't happened yet. Opportunistic omnivores, really mostly scavengers. Ignoble, but closer to the truth.

    I'm convinced that under the modern veneer, at least 1/3 of the batshittery in the Middle East is because every damn body stokes a claim to their own particular Empire That Was, That Owned It All. With judicious choice of grandparent, everybody's "peeps" were in charge of it all at one point,

    There's a really odd flavor of something almost like primogeniture in this kind of rationale. "My peeps owned / ran / conquered / exploited this back in one particular day so I should inherit that right. Also, shame on you for interrupting the chain of title, you usurper. We took it fair and square."

    Ownership and identification have something to do with a continuous timeline, I think. Also, the people and places I know were cleared by the colonists without slaves - just sayin.

  • ,

    "Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet."

    I generally like you, BA, but it's funny how people who assert this is true haven't just killed themselves by now to help save the planet. Every little bit helps.

  • Jeff S.

    Krasinski's character's name is NOBLE? Jesus, Dave Eggers did have a hand in this.

  • Scratch McGee

    Great review, but I must say I'm disappointed that this didn't live up to its potential. My boyfriend works for one of the big energy companies doing fracking and the issues and arguments of this industry really interest me, especially the way said boyfriend has climbed totally on board with the company line, taking their word as gospel- without prejudice of my own, I wonder if it's what he truly believes, or if he has decided he wants to believe it and not think beyond it in order to do his job and keep making decent money. Anyway, I wanted this film to be something I could sink my little mind's teeth into and have it bite back, and I'm bummed it sounds as though it's on the gummy side.

  • in an attempt to evoke a spirit of a corn-fed America that only exists in movies like this one.

    And, you know, right outside my front door, down the road in all directions, across the rest of Illinois, throughout Iowa, and into Nebraska, where my family still farms. I get so tired of people saying farming communities aren't real places. They wave the flag all over the place around here. They go to church regularly, too. The sign at the gas station welcomes home soldiers, notes anniversaries and births and graduations. If I forget my bank card, I can take my groceries and send my kid back with a check. The cops know everyone by name.

    The folks who farm around here worry about the weather - especially this past year, when the drought decimated corn crops all across the Midwest - and contemplate whether or not to lease land for windmills that screw up satellite reception, just to be sure of an income. So far, fracking hasn't been introduced to this region, but it's already being argued over by folks who own the land. I doubt I'll see this movie, but please, please stop saying that the people I see every day don't exist.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    I'm so happy to see this comment, because the review got cynical towards the end, and I took a teensy bit of offense to it as well (since I now live in Gomorrah, I can't officially rebut)

  • John G.

    you can't be writing this comment, because you don't exist.

  • Drake

    I have been seeing an inordinate amount of advertising for this film, given its somewhat independent nature, and been thinking about seeing just on the appeal of the two male leads, but now think I'll pass. Thanks for a good review, as always, DC.

  • Yvette54

    I hope you don't let one person's opinion sway you from a film 'you' thought interesting up to that point. There has been a curious campaign to kill this film for the past month on message boards and in reviews just like this one ... where the reviewer just can't put their finger on exactly 'why' the film doesn't work for them, it just doesn't.

    One reviewer at "Rotten Tomatoes" went so far as to scorn Matt Damon in saying the actor obviously has a true nefarious side evident in the 'Steve' character, which, despite Damon's 'supposedly' boyish looks, has allowed him to be very, very good at playing offensive, dark characters. Then the reviewer underlined his comments with the 'Damon should keep his preachy Liberal ignorance to himself' line and did we know his film was financed by 'foreign' Middle Eastern Oil??? The film wasn't ... the Media company in question was one of several investors, and the company has helped finance other films such as "The Help," so this isn't a special interest one-off as portrayed by an uncomfortable number of 'intelligent' folk.

    I'm not in the least comparing this reviewer's comments to the biased ones I've read, but like many reviewer's I've read regarding this film, he doesn't seem able to keep his 'own' feelings and opinions reflecting lack of knowledge (he has obviously never driven through Indiana to visit relatives like I have) from coloring what he sat and witnessed in the film.

    I think it's sad this film, which hasn't even opened yet (even the New York Times reviewed it a week in advance) will die an untimely (and unfair?) death based upon emotional garbage from a growing number of reviewers who question the validity of a realistically depicted town and people they are convinced do not exist.

  • TenaciousJP

    Steve’s also got his eye on Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt), a teacher he meets at a bar his first night in town, so it’s no surprise hen Dustin starts courting her, too.

    There’s a fascinating core to Steve that the film tentatively explores before chickening out.

    This review makes the movie sound completely fowl.

  • Mitchell Hundred

    Yeah, it sounds like a real turkey.

  • L.O.V.E.

    Actually, this movie got an R Rating for "fowl" language.

    (Oh, and another nice review, DC).

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