Fracking has become a hot topic in recent years, with oil companies and environmentalists butting heads over the procedure’s effects on the planet. Promised Land is a low-key drama about a small farming town stuck in between the benefits and detriments of fracking. If the impoverished population agree to let Global Natural Gas drill into their land, they can make a sizeable chunk of money. Money that can be used to fund better lives for their children. However, they must also weigh the possibility that fracking will destroy their farmland and, in the process, the legacies of their families: The damage to the land would make it so that nobody could use it for farming ever again. The immediate question becomes, do you have more of a responsibility to your present, or to your past and future?
Steve Butler (Matt Damon) is a salesman for Global Natural Gas. He and his partner, Sue (Frances McDormand), go into farming towns and convince the residents that allowing them to drill is the right choice for their families. Steve is great at what he does, boasting a closing rate higher than anyone else in his field. Before he and Sue set foot in town, they stop and buy clothes that will make them seem like locals. As a wolf in sheep’s clothing, Steve makes quick work of the initial farmers he meets, getting them to agree almost instantly. It isn’t until a well-educated local named Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook) literally stands up and warns his neighbors about the dangers of fracking that Steve hits a roadblock. The elderly Yates draws the attention of young, charismatic environmentalist Dustin Noble (John Krasinski), who makes his way into town and begins rallying the community against Global.
Steve is not a dislikable character by any means, despite clearly playing for the wrong team (according to the film). When he develops a potential romance with local teacher Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt), you never have reason to root against the relationship. Other, more heavy-handed films would cheaply paint Steve as an extension of evil because he works for the big, bad billion-dollar company. But more than anything, he is visible to us as a man, and a good one at that. When Steve’s work rival (Dustin) proves to be a romantic rival as well, you actually feel bad for him despite his status as the “bad” guy and Dustin’s as the “good” guy. If you removed him from his current job at Global, you’d wish nothing but success for him.
Matt Damon and John Krasinski, producers, writers, and stars of Promised Land, shape a well-balanced story with characters of exceptional depth. Rather than focusing all their efforts on making sure just Steve and Dustin are defined, the duo crafts realistic and layered townspeople to inhabit the film. These simple folk are a microcosm of America, each with his or her own ideas, motives, and temperament. One man (Lucas Black), after being misled by Steve into thinking his land could be worth a substantial sum, runs out and purchases a Corvette, figuring he will soon have the money to make the payments. Damon has said that Black actually knows someone in real life who did the exact same thing in the same situation, plus got the Corvette logo tattooed on his chest (Krasinski and Damon did not know about this before writing the script; this was sheer coincidence).
Because of the numerous objective views suggested, Promised Land avoids turning into an after school special that preaches without listening. While the stance of the writers is clear, they don’t bludgeon us over the head with their beliefs. Director Gus Van Sant doesn’t take any cheap shots at anyone but merely presents us with images to form our own ideas. In one memorable scene, Steve is giving his sales pitch to a farmer, but instead of seeing the conversation, we are shown the farmer’s young daughter coloring. The implication of the shot tells us that no matter what decision is made based on the conversation being held, it will inevitably affect the future of our children. The director and writers also are mindful to inject humor into the film as often as possible, which both adds to the realism and keeps the film from entering a dour atmosphere. You won’t find any belly laughs, but you’ll smile and chuckle plenty.
Promised Land is one of the most complete films of the year. Not only is it wholly impressive from a technical standpoint, but it has the ability to make you care about something you perhaps weren’t aware of before. As with any major issues, it’s best not to base your opinions and arguments on a single source (this is a work of fiction, after all; a realistic work of fiction is still fiction). You should still make it your responsibility to educate yourself on something, if you claim to care about it. While the stance of the filmmakers is clear, Promised Land is so subdued in its message that it can’t be confused with propaganda but rather, a jumping off point for larger discussions to bloom.
My Rating: (8/10)