Raise your hand if you want to watch a movie about hydraulic fracturing? Anyone? What if it stars Matt Damon, John Krasinski, and Frances McDormand? Sound better now? Promised Land features an incredible amount of talent in front of and behind the camera, originally conceived as Damon’s directorial debut. Ultimately it went to his longtime friend Gus Van Sant, with Damon and Krasinski also co-drafting the screenplay. Their hearts are clearly in the right place, hoping to craft a Frank Capra-esque moral drama that has two goals: to expose the very real and current danger of fracking; and the other to provide a subtle and nuanced look at small town America.
Unfortunately, what intrudes is the need to sell this as a movie people would actually pay money for, and so we get just as much of Damon and Krasinski battling over a woman’s affections as they do about the impacts of fracking. Promised Land has a lot to say about shattering myths, and when we first meet gas company salesman Steve Butler(Damon) he’s talking about the myth of heartland America, where hard-working men and women have built themselves up to some ridiculous ideal. They believe all their blood and sweat will pay off in the end, that they are truly the glue that holds this country together. In Steve’s mind, they’re all delusional. A small town guy himself, he’s seen what happens when the local plant leaves, taking the jobs and the money along with it. Now he peddles a bigger dream to people who have been hit the hardest by the economic downturn. He sells them the promise of great wealth if they simply sell over the oil drilling rights to his bosses.
Steve’s not a bad guy, at least not in his mind. He thinks the path he took in finding success is the right one, and if he has to downplay the effect of fracking, which involves injecting toxic chemicals into the ground to better extract the gas, then so be it. If he and go-getter partner Sue(Frances McDormand) have to fool the locals by dressing up like them and talking like them, then so be it. Some in the town see their arrival as a Godsend, and are ready and eager to sign over their land, which is their birthright in some cases, over for what amounts to far less than the billions the gas company is going to make.
Of course Steve and Sue face some opposition. The always-great Hal Holbrook plays a science teacher who worked in the industry for decades, and informs the town of the potential dangers of fracking. He, along with a button-pushing activist named Dustin Noble(Krasinski) push for a town vote to decide whether to sell over the rights. Pretty soon you have Dustin and Steve trying to win over the hearts of the townsfolk in any way possible, which generally means blending into their close-knit culture as effectively as possible. Have a few beers at the bar with the guys, do a little karaoke, whatever it takes to fit in and sell your plan from the inside. Dustin’s immediately more likable, but it’s Steve who first begins to win the attention of Alice(Rosemarie DeWitt), a schoolteacher torn between his sales pitch and her own family farm.
Fracking is complex issue, and the script treats it and the represented people with all the respect they deserve. These are real characters, and Van Sant the perfect director for relishing in the earthy beauty of small town America. The pace is casual, but never boring, so just ignore those deceptive TV ads depicting the film as some sort of buddy comedy. It most certainly isn’t.
Damon has by far the most difficult role, as the “hero” and “villain” of the piece, and the results are a little murky. He’s more comfortable in the back-and-forth with Krasinski, or when he’s romancing DeWitt. Speaking of which, she desperately needs to break out of this rut of cookie-cutter love interest roles she’s been stuck in lately. She’s capable of so much more, and the love triangle at the center of this story serves no purpose whatsoever. Kraskinski is for much of the film the guy we’ve come to expect and like, but he’s burdened by a terrible final act swerve that even the worst Hollywood hack writer would be ashamed of. It totally undermines everything the filmmakers were attempting to accomplish. The only explanation is that someone felt it just wasn’t exciting enough.
Promised Land’s goals are clear, and that certainty also reduces any dramatic tension. We already know where Damon’s character is going to end up by the time the credits role. Fracking is horrible, and there are better, safer way to secure our energy independence. Got it. As screenwriters, Damon and Krasinski would probably make for a better pair if they weren’t trying to send a message, because they seem to get lost in trying to do that and keep to a compelling narrative. Promised Land is ultimately a place worth passing through, but you wouldn’t want to set up shop there.