Gus Van Sant's "Promised Land" (2012) incorporates the plot of two different kind of movies. At one side, it is a preachy anti-fracking drama and on the other side, it is one of the nuanced portrait of small-town America at the crossways of the past and future. While the first thing results to a sloppy ending, the other part shows some interesting dynamics at play here about how big corporations operate and the post-Industrial Era battle between environmental concerns and economic realities.
"Fracking" is said to be the process of drilling and injecting fluid into the ground at a high pressure in order to fracture shale rocks to release natural gas inside. Shale rocks is a sedimentary rock formed by the deposition of successive layers of clay. This is the controversial method of drawing out natural gas from the land. It's also one of the hot-issues today, full of arguments on both sides. And while rich corporates might have less skin in this game than a poor farmer who desperately needs the money for those drilling rights, at least the movie makes some attempts at fairness, at first.
Steve Butler (Matt Damon) and Sue Thompson (Frances McDormand) are the top sales reps. for Global Gas Field Operatives. Steve, himself was a farm boy turned big-city professional. He holds an honest affection for the blue-collar work ethic and is painfully aware that he’s effectively emptying entire communities under the pretext of revitalizing them. The duo are sent to rural Pennsylvania to convince the locals to sell their land for the purposes of hydraulic fracturing in exchange for a huge pay. The initial reaction is positive in the community, but when a high school science teacher, Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook), speaks out against fracking during a community meeting, problems arises for Steve.
Soon, a cheery and charming environmentalist Dustin Noble (John Krasinski) arrives and teaches locals that fracking is not only laying waste to a rich agricultural tradition, but also contributing to air/water pollution and killing livestock. He charges up the locals by posting photos of dead cows everywhere. Along with the campaign against Global, Dustin also wages a effusive war with Steve for the affections of a local schoolteacher (Rosemarie DeWitt). The middle part of the movie follows the moves and counter-moves by Steve and Dustin to win over a majority of the community before an all-important vote. The vote determines whether fracking is a "go" or "no go."
Scriptwriters Matt Damon and John Krasinski have something to say rather than a story to tell, and the agenda ends up defusing the drama. A viewer might have a question of why such an important acquisition is left in the hands of two low-level operatives. The question is answered in the screenplay (towards the end), which turns "Promised Land" into a dubious drama. Gus Van Sant directs the brewing drama with ease and assurance, establishing a rich sense of place through cinematographer Linus Sandgren’s mournful portrait of an economically depressed farming community. However, the thoughtful contemplation on corporate neglect and personal responsibility suddenly shifts into a one-sided statement that cheapens, rather than underscores.
As Steve, Matt Damon gives a nice, low-key performance. He generates a tense screen resonance with Krasinski, ideally cast as a grassroots charmer. Frances McDormand is perfect as Sue -- a pragmatic woman who views what she's doing is "just a job" and whose only true concern is providing for her son's education. Hal Holbrook turns in a fantastic performance as an cantankerous corporate critic. The ensemble also has sharp character work by Titus Welliver (as the witty gun-shop owner Rob), Scoot McNairy and Tim Guinee (locals with varying opinions on the drilling issue).
The question raised through "Promised Land" is this: "Whether the undeniable economic benefits of fracking outweigh the potential ecological issues." But, the attempts in answering this question is too facile. Apart from that single misstep, "Promised Land" is made with good intentions and certainly takes us for a ride along the lovely and vital rural America.
Promised Land -- IMDb
Hydraulic Fracturing -- Wikipedia