For New York area residents, the hot button subject of hydraulic fracturing or fracking has been a heavily debated issue since the process of extracting natural gas from rocks deep below the surface of land was outlawed in the state. Concerns about the damaging after-effects of the process and the potential contamination of our water and air have proven to override the potential benefits of utilizing our own land to harness natural gas. With lobbyist groups positioning themselves on both sides of the argument, it seems that Hollywood has finally taken note with the release of the Gus Van Sant helmed “Promised Land” (R), out in limited release on Friday, December 28th.
”Promised Land” follows the story of Steve Butler (Matt Damon), a recently promoted corporate salesman who travels with partner Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand) through the small Midwestern-type town of McKinley, PA on behalf of an energy company to purchase drilling rights on the land of local residents. With promises of big time riches and little mention of the potentially hazardous effects of the process, Butler’s smooth talking ways still manage to reach a sizable percentage of the population and even win the heart of love interest Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt). But with the help of local science teacher Frank Yates, played wonderfully by the aging Hal Holbrook and a recently arrived environmental activist Dustin Noble (John Krasinski), suddenly the ‘all-in’ attitude of the townspeople is in question and Butler beings to struggle with his own motives on behalf of a giant energy and drilling conglomerate.
The film is almost entirely slow-paced which is imperative in light of understanding the movie’s central purpose. Based in the western Pennsylvania, we follow Damon’s slick sales-pitches to a collection of local residents accustomed to more simple things- think almost a reverse Erin Brockovich. While Damon’s lead character has motives which are both believable and identifiable, it is perhaps Krasinski’s star here that shines brightest as a seemingly sincere ‘David vs. Goliath’ style activist, pleading for the people of the rural farm town to consider the hazards of fracking before blindly signing up for a perilous outcome. But we come to find that the corporate arm of Global Crosspower Solutions that Butler is trying to protect runs entirely deeper than anyone anticipated.
Not even the film’s very real context nor the surprising twist near the film’s conclusion can salvage a mostly forgettable piece by Van Sant. While the character development is strong, it’s questionable whether anyone outside of lobbyists or those directly involved in the debate on fracking will necessarily find themselves invested in the film’s central concept. Additionally, “Promised Land” makes it difficult to rally behind Damon as the central lead as a cagy salesman looking to swoop in and take advantage of uninformed residents in a suffering farming community, despite his always likeable presence on screen. While “Promised Land” lends itself to being a more educational look at the debate between greed and preserving history, the path it follows to get there is muddled and slow-winding.
“Promised Land” starring Matt Damon, John Krasinski, and Frances McDormand is rated R, has a runtime of 106 minutes and is in limited release on Friday, December 28th before expanding to wide release on January 11th, 2013.
- Jane Van Arsdale