Thursday, January 3, 2013

Review: "Promised land"

“Promised Land” is the sort of movie that is so gratingly earnest, so righteous in its mission and so unwavering in its message that it undercuts the storytelling.

This drama about the issue of hydraulic fracturing drilling for natural gas, or “fracking,” contains some powerful moments and a few nice performances, particularly Matt Damon as a conflicted gas company rep. But the screenplay, co-written by Damon and John Krasinski (who also co-stars), sets up the conflict in such stark shades of black and white, we know exactly how the characters’ journeys will turn out.

To wit: I do not think I am giving anything away by stating that this film ends with Damon’s character, Steve Butler, undergoing a major change of heart, making a big speech in front of the townspeople in which he confesses his sins. This is because, given everything that has transpired, this movie could not have ended any other way.

Steve is the hotshot top salesman for Global Gas. His job is to go into rural communities where natural gas is lying in beds of shale rock deep below the earth and buy up the leasing rights to farms. Steve, along with his partner Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand), have a track record of signing more land at a fraction of the price compared to other teams.

Now he’s up for a big promotion, as soon as he closes the deal on the tiny town of Miller Falls. There he encounters a stubborn old farmer (Hal Holbrook) who used to be a big shot scientist. He warns people about the environmental dangers of fracking, and convinces them to hold an election in three weeks’ time to decide the issue.

This represents a nightmare scenario for Steve and Sue, who are used to descending on a small community, swooping up all the lease contracts and getting out before any opposition has time to coalesce. Even worse, a smarmy young environmentalist from some group called Superior Athena named Dustin Noble (Krasinski) shows up with dire warnings and horrifying photographs of dead cows after his family’s dairy farm was ruined by fracking.

The contrast between Dustin and Steve could not be more puzzling. For a fellow who is supposed to be the best there is at schmoozing and selling, Steve seems absolutely flummoxed by the tall, blithely charming environmentalist. As a result, the farmers keep getting sullener, transitioning from get-off-my-land rebuffs to fisticuffs in bars.

“I’m not a bad guy,” he keeps telling people, until you suspect it’s not them he’s trying to convince.

Damon gives one of his best performances as a guy who’s plowed all of his energy into his job at the detriment of nourishing his soul. Steve came from a small town himself that was devastated by layoffs at the local Caterpillar factory, and was one of only two people in his high school who went to college.

Now he’s successful, and goes around the country writing big checks to dirt-poor farmers who he genuinely believes he’s helping. There’s a sense of altruism there, but also contempt.

Steve sees these fracking contracts as their one chance to cash in and get ahead. He can’t believe it when people turn him down. They’re just perpetuating a “delusional self-mythology” about rural America, he says.

Steve made it out, and thinks everyone else wants to, too.

This dynamic would have worked better if the movie’s internal logic wasn’t all bunched up in knots. For example, we keep getting reminders of how big Global Gas is – “We’re a $9 billion company!” is the phrase that’s repeated several times. Yet they seem to have the resources of a mom-and-pop.

As near as we can figure, Steve and Sue in their beaten-up rental truck and recently store-bought flannels – deliberately downscale accoutrements meant to help them blend in – represent Global’s entire presence. At one point, Steve gets the idea to hold a town fair to generate goodwill, and he has to set up all the tents, hay bales and fencing himself. Huh?

Director Gus Van Sant has a nice eye for the beautiful landscapes depicted – the film was shot lovingly by cinematographer Linus Sandgren outside of Pittsburgh. But his pacing is a little off at times, and characters disappear for long stretches or behave erratically.

For instance, the (inevitable) local love interest is played by Rosemarie DeWitt. Alice, a winsome schoolteacher brushing up against spinsterhood, shares immediate sparks with Steve, then starts flirting around with Dustin. As written, the character seems to have no motivations or opinions about fracking, as long as she’s got two gorgeous guys squabbling over her.

“Promised Land” may have its heart in the right place, but too often it sacrifices believability.

2.5 stars out of four

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