What’s this? Another fracking movie about local folk up against corrupt big industry? “Fracking,” for those unfamiliar with natural-gas drilling, is a technique for harvesting fossil fuels by the hydraulic fracturing of subterranean rock layers with pressurized water and chemicals.
The subject came to widespread media attention in 2010 with Josh Fox’s Academy Award-nominated documentary, Gasland , which asserted that fracking contaminates ground water, poisoning humans and livestock. (Predictably, energy-industry representatives challenged Gasland ‘s claims, insisting there is no proven link between fracking and environmental damage. Promised Land was also targeted by conservative critics in advance of its release because the producers received financing from an oil-rich foreign nation through the United Arab Emirates production company, Image Nation Abu Dhabi, which also helped finance The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and The Help.)
Though Promised Land comes late to the fracking party, it brings a posse of celebrity lights to the cause. Actors Matt Damon and John Krasinski (The Office) wrote the screenplay for, produced and starred in Promised Land (which is based on a Dave Eggers short story). Gus Van Sant, with whom Damon previously collaborated on Gerry and Good Will Hunting, sat in the director’s seat.
The star power is deceiving, and the energy companies might be smarter to ignore the film than fan the controversy by attacking it. Promised Land is a low-budget effort, far too awkward and contrived a drama to change many hearts and minds. This film’s depth of insight into the practice of fracking is, literally, presented at a primary-school level: In one scene, an environmental activist does a demonstration to a first-grade class on how bad chemicals can hurt nice water and animals.
For viewers who are interested in more than the issues, there are some pleasures in Van Sant’s direction; the rural landscapes and small-town details give Promised Land an elegiac elegance. Otherwise, the politics are blunt and the story is familiar, especially if you’ve seen Bill Forsyth’s 1983 Scottish film, Local Hero, wherein a couple of sharp city-slickers come to a small town waving bags of cash around in exchange for resource rights, until they meet a pocket of resistance.
In Promised Land, Damon plays Steve Butler, an ace representative at a gas company called Global Cross-Power Solutions. Steve has a gift for getting farmers’ signatures on leasing contracts. As he tells a colleague over dinner, his gift is his deep conviction in the product he’s selling: An Iowa farm boy, he saw his community collapse when the local tractor company pulled out. Now he believes he’s giving people a chance for a future that doesn’t depend on paltry farm subsidies, even if it means signing the death warrant on their way of life.
If his job requires dressing up in a hokey flannel shirt and jeans to look like “regular” folk, that’s fine. His brusque associate, Sue (Frances McDormand), is a middle-aged single mom struggling with parenting via Skype, who doesn’t have time for a social conscience. Together they arrive in the west Pennsylvania town and start lining up local landowners to sell off their gas rights.
The first impediment is a well-informed local science teacher (Hal Holbrook) who questions Global’s safety claims and calls for a town vote on the company’s proposal. Soon, Steve has a bigger problem when a charming environmental activist, Dustin Noble (Krasinski), arrives in town to whip up anti-Global sentiment with pictures of dead cows.
In a series of confrontations that mostly happen at the town bar, Steve and Dustin engage in hostile banter while vying for the attentions of the attractive local school teacher, Alice (a misused Rosemarie DeWitt, whose main job is to gaze adoringly at the male leads). Local characters run a spectrum from defiantly proud farmer (Scoot McNairy) to gullible yokel (Tim Guinee), who buys a sports car at the promise of a fracking windfall, to an against-type urbane and sexy store-keeper (Titus Welliver) who catches Sue’s eye.
Apart from its warm, gentle tone, much about Promised Land simply isn’t good, especially the inconsistencies in the screenplay. After the mood-setting first half, things start to unravel. Steve’s character is initially defined as a sharp operator who knows every argument, but he flails and loses confidence when confronted with minimal opposition. The desire to write Steve as a basically good guy gives him a puzzling tentativeness (why is he so reluctant when Alice throws herself at him?).
McDormand’s character, Sue, issues snappy one-liners but is left to drift in the film’s resolution; she’s there for a dash of colour but is otherwise inessential. All the inconsistencies meet in a blatantly contrived eleventh-hour plot twist, topped up with a populist serving of Capra-corn that seems transplanted from a different era.
A film about a public-relations battle between the energy industry and environmentalists, Promised Land is, inevitably, also part of that war in the real world. Given the opportunity to wrestle with these issues, it’s a shame Promised Land doesn’t put up a better fight.