Gus Van Sant’s Promised Land aims to inform people about fracking, one of today’s most controversial subjects, while trying to entertain with a run-of-the-mill story.
The script was written by Matt Damon and John Krasinski, from a story by the bestselling author Dave Eggers. Damon plays Steve Butler, an ace corporate salesman who is sent along with his partner, Sue Thomason, played by Frances McDormand, to close a key rural town in his company’s expansion plans. With the town having been hit hard by the economic decline of recent years, the two outsiders see the local citizens as likely to accept their company’s offer, for drilling rights to their properties, as much-needed relief.
But when an intelligent schoolteacher, played by Hal Holbrook, begins to ask questions about the process of fracking, the town begins to think twice about giving in to the company’s offers. Krasinski also shows up later in the film as a sweet-talking and charming environmentalist who tries to convince the town folks to stay fracking-free.
Besides hitting you over the head with the message that fracking is bad, Promised Land tries to focus on one man’s internal struggle to prove that he’s not a bad guy. Damon plays Butler with charisma and integrity. Even though he’s meant to be seen as the evil corporate guy, you’re cheering for him to pull off the big contract. Damon’s character has seen, first-hand, what fracking can do to a farm. He relates to the people he’s dealing with, and that humanizes him. Krasinski, who’s usually the most likeable guy in the movie, comes off as an environmentalist bully. He’s slick and cool, but not exactly the good guy he portrays to be for most of the film.
Despite the solid performances, Promised Land is way too preachy and also suffers from a mean-spirited, obvious twist. The writers tried to sprinkle in some romance to distract from the hard-hitting message, but it doesn’t work. The love stories feel forced and the supporting characters too thin, and that’s a damn shame because Rosemarie DeWitt is a lovely actress who we don’t get enough of in the film.
Van Sant is totally capable of handling controversial subjects. Milk is proof of that. But this film lacks heart and passion. Promised Land is informative. It’ll teach you a lot about fracking, and maybe even simplify it for you. But the story is dull and not very entertaining.
Promised Land opens wide on January 4, 2013.