Movie review: Promised Land 

***1/2
click to enlarge Matt Damon and Frances McDormand in 'Promised Land'.
  • Matt Damon and Frances McDormand in 'Promised Land'.

Promised Land is a ham-handed, but entertaining drama about ethics and identity written and starring Matt Damon and John Krasinski (The Office) and directed by Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting, Milk). The script contains a number of wonky moments, balanced out - at least for me - by the rich atmosphere and fine performances of the leads as rivals sparring over a controversial corporate practice.

The process in question is fracking (hydraulic fracturing), a type of mining in which cracks are created in shale in order to obtain gas, oil or other substances inside it. The term "fracking" should not be confused with the term "fracking," an expletive commonly used by denizens of the spaceship Battlestar Galactica and their admirers. Proponents of the mining style claim that fracking provides economical access to formerly inaccessible hydrocarbons, while opponents complain that the process can contaminate ground water, impact air quality and cause harmful migration of gases and chemicals to the surface (paraphrased from Wikipedia). In short, many environmentalists maintain that fracking is fracking dangerous.

As an issue-movie, Promised Land presents both viewpoints on the process in a balanced fashion until the last few minutes when it twists and turns to find a noble ending. I didn't buy what they were selling, but I enjoyed the melodrama. While the cheese is tasty, the dilemmas of Damon's character are more nourishing.

Damon plays Steve Butler, an up-and-coming employee of Global Crosspower Solutions who travels to impoverished farm towns, buying the mining rights from the landowners along with his partner, Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand, reliably fine). An ex-farm town boy, Steve views himself as a good guy, impressing his employers while making struggling local farmers rich. Everything changes in the latest small town, when retired teacher/respected scientist Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook, very good) and environmental activist Dustin Noble (Krasinski) challenge the company's sale pitch. Suddenly Steve and Sue are cast as villains.

Watching Steve grapple with his self-image is interesting, as is his ongoing snarking at Dustin Noble (have you ever heard a name that sounds more made-up?). There's even a sorta rivalry between the guys over a charming townie (Rosemarie DeWitt). The situation doesn't go anywhere, but it provides Steve more opportunities to give Dustin the skunk-eye.

I wondered why Steve hadn't had his identity crisis earlier. Was this really the first time he had been challenged? I wondered why the townspeople changed their stances so quickly after hearing from Dustin and Frank. One would think that they would have googled "fracking" on their own and considered the dangers themselves.

Two scenes really left me scratching my head. After Dustin did an anti-fracking elementary school classroom demonstration including a fire, why wasn't he escorted out and the teacher canned? And did Steve truly believe that putting together a town fair would really win over his opponents?

But my issues with the film did not affect my enjoyment of it. The cast is quite good, especially the charismatic Krasinski. Most of the townspeople are presented as smart and thoughtful. And the Steve/Dustin dynamic is consistently engaging. Promised Land is worth a look for forgiving viewers.

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