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Gasland shows the dangers lurking in wells

Gasland: part verite travelogue, part expose, part mystery, part bluegrass banjo meltdown, part showdown.

2 out of 4 stars



  • Written and directed by Josh Fox
  • Classification: PG

While oil is still synonymous with unmitigated catastrophe, the documentary Gasland warns of the dangers lurking in natural-gas wells.

Gasland started when an oil company offered to lease Josh Fox's Pennsylvania property for $100,000. Fox's house sits atop the Marcellus Shale, where a special extraction process has yielded the "Saudi Arabia of natural gas."

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Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, injects a cocktail of toxic chemicals into the earth to extract the gas, leaving area residents to collect mysterious yellowed liquids in glass jars. Hydro fracking is exempt from certain emissions standards in the United States, including the Safe Drinking Water Act. It's all very mysterious.

So, in his first documentary feature, Fox's lulling narrative voice asks and answers: "Was I actually going to become a natural-gas drilling detective? Okay, I guess." He seems to apply the same philosophy to his filmmaking. After wrestling with how to tell a story that speaks for itself, he decides not to "wrap up a bag of crap with a bow." As one of his interviewees suggests, "It ain't pretty."

Fox goes on a 24-state renegade investigation and finds chronically ill people, balding animals, a slick sheen on well water and kitchen faucets with flammable emissions: water that can be set on fire. It's well-researched and interviews from residents with wells in their yards, victims of corporate greed who can barely find words for their feelings of betrayal, are heart-wrenching.

But a concerted effort not to finesse the packaging is distracting. The sharp cuts, bad lighting and jarring camera work is brash, guerrilla-style "it doesn't have to be in focus to impress you," filmmaking. And sometimes, it's true.

It's not pretty, but it works for some. Gasland won a special jury prize at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.

And its quirks can be contagious. Fox inserts some cool, retro-style graphics, notably to explain the anatomy of a gas well. The strange travelogue and diary-style narrative do become more cohesive as the story itself gets more surreal. And the banjo-plucking musical interludes become more bearable, even an interesting soundtrack by the end.

At various times, you might find industry lobbyists at Congress, children hunting for Easter eggs, or Fox in a gas mask, playing the banjo amidst a sprawling landscape of gas wells. Some cuts and title cards are so quick, the image is lost.

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But the message is there, from environmentalist Theo Colborn, Middle Americans with gas wells in their backyards (and animal corpse samples in their freezers), and whistleblower Weston Wilson, "not speaking on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency, though I work for them."

"Only in an Orwellian world would you accept this," Wilson says. "This is America."

Canadians who think an Orwellian dystopia can't happen here are reminded of the natural-gas leaks and pipeline bombings earlier this year in Dawson Creek, B.C.

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