Director: Gus Van Sant
Cast: Matt Damon, Frances McDormand, John Krasinski, Hal Holbrook
Running Time: 106 minutes
Release: April 19
“Message” films are something of a rarity in modern cinema. When you consider films like The China Syndrome, Erin Brockovich or, to a lesser extent, Michael Clayton, the key factor is that they have to be packaged in an entertaining manner. The subject, by itself, is thought-provoking—or at least it’s meant to be. With Gus Van Sant’s Promised Land, the subject is fracking. For the uninitiated, it’s the process of gathering natural gas from shale and mineral deposits in the earth’s crust by methods akin to mining. It’s covered in basic terms in the film—an elementary school exhibit, to be exact. The interesting thing, however, is that Promised Land is a tale that has been told again and again. It’s not about the pros and cons of fracking, per se. It’s about man versus man. Much like There Will Be Blood, it’s two people pitting themselves against each other for something the other wants. Or so you think.
Matt Damon plays Steve Butler, a salesman for Global Crosspower, the fracking company in question. Together with Frances McDormand, they’ve come to a small town in Middle America to lease land from the farmers and landowners in the area. Damon and McDormand are experienced corporate players, camouflaging their capitalist desires with flannel shirts and earnest speeches. However, during a town hall meeting to discuss the proposal, several questions are raised by local science teacher Hal Holbrook. Fracking, it seems, is not the answer to the struggling community’s prayers. Rather, it’s dangerous, ecologically-disastrous and far more profitable than they were led to believe. Alongside Holbrook’s concerns, a small environmentalist group led by John Krasinski arrives to throw a spanner in the works. The film then plays out as a PR war between Krasinski’s folksy charm and idealist monologues and Damon and McDormand’s hard-nosed reality.
Damon and McDormand have fantastic chemistry together. Damon easily plays the honest, earnest salesman who knows the realities of those he deals with. Everything feels natural and almost unscripted, but there’s a definite narrative going on. Krasinski, likewise, is natural and unhindered in his performance. It’s not a million miles away from his role as Jim Halpert in the US Office, but it could be simply that you’re used to associating him with it. Either way, it works to his advantage. Hal Holbrook injects a sense of gravitas to the film, while never allowing it to feel over-the-top. The cast is rounded out by competent, if perfunctory performances by Titus Welliver, Rosemarie DeWitt and Lucas Black.
Van Sant’s direction is muted, for the most part. Instead, he lets the natural scenery and the beauty of the landscape wash over the screen. The film’s script, written by Damon and Krasinski, does tend to veer towards being corny at various points. However, it’s anchored in the practical realities of the world today. Farming communities like the one portrayed in Promised Land are dying out and there is little or nothing that can be done to save them. Thankfully, the film doesn’t give any po-faced solution to the problem; rather it simply acknowledges it and the fact that it’s not going away. The corporation McDormand and Damon represent aren’t out-and-out evil, although their methods are somewhat unscrupulous. Likewise, Krasinski’s environmental lobbyist isn’t entirely above surreptitious tactics—albeit for a nobler cause. The film itself is a slow-burner. There are no bursts of action or drama, it ambles along at the desired pace and allows characters to fully develop.
Overall, Promised Land is an enjoyable drama, if a little dull in places. The performances of Damon, McDormand and Krasinski, together with the gorgeous photography, more than make up for it, however.