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Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013 05:08 am

Land doesn’t fulfill promise

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Matt Damon as Steve Butler in Promised Land.

While there’s never any doubt that Gus Van Sant’s Promised Land was made with the best of intentions, something goes slightly awry in the execution of this environmental awareness movie. Working from a screenplay by Matt Damon and John Krasinski (The Office), which was based on a story by Dave Eggers, the film sets out to expose the nefarious practice of fracking, a controversial technique used by energy companies in which drills are used to fracture shale and other source rocks to release petroleum and natural gas. A process that looks good on paper, this has been known to result in the contamination of ground water and farmland as well as affect air quality.

Little time is wasted in the film before we know all we need to know about fracking as Steve Butler (Damon), a representative from Global Crosspower Solutions appears in a small Pennsylvania town with his partner Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand), intent on obtaining drilling rights from its citizens. This is like manna from heaven for most, as these farmers and blue-collar workers have been suffering financially due to factory closings, bad crops and the economic collapse of 2008. It looks as though Butler’s job will be as easy as stealing broccoli from a baby. That is until a respected high school history teacher (Hal Holbrook) mentions the downside of fracking at a town meeting and Dustin Noble (Krasinski), a good-natured activist, shows up to stir the pot. Seems his father leased his farm, fracking took place and all of their livestock ended up dead and the land contaminated. He’s got the pictures to prove it, too.

It’s all pretty black and white here, though Van Sant and his two screenwriters do their best to introduce a bit of ambiguity to the story. Butler is tempted by the town’s sexy single schoolteacher, Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt), but he’s conflicted. Her family farm is one of the biggest tracts in the town. Equally troubling is the fact that he too comes from a small town, was raised on a farm and the notion that he may be betraying his own looms larger and larger in his mind. Noble continues to reveal more and more about the downside of the process he’s selling.

For such a serious film there’s an odd lack of passion about the whole affair. While there is an interesting twist during its third act, the story has no real surprises up its sleeve. The screenplay stacks the deck so heavily against the power companies in question that you know how it will all turn out. And while the film’s environmental message is intact at the end, it lands with a bit of a thud rather than a fiery pronouncement. Had they delivered a more decisive statement, much like Steven Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich (2000), the movie would have more resonance.

While Damon and Krasinski are fine, though the latter lacks any shadings of grey, perhaps the biggest oversight of the movie is the underuse of McDormand. Always an intriguing actress, she’s given far too little to do, especially where interacting with the two leads are concerned. It’s suggested that she’s a bit more mercenary in her approach and potential fireworks may erupt between her and Damon. But alas, this is yet another wasted opportunity in a film that has the chance to make a grade pronouncement, but opts instead to make an offhand statement.  

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org

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