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Fracking Drama 'Promised Land' Is Ultimately Unconvincing

Fracking Drama 'Promised Land' Is Ultimately Unconvincing
1/4/2013 4:37 PM ET

Like many social issue movies, "Promised Land" has good intentions and even some interesting points about the nature of fracking, an issue that could be a cornerstone of environmental rhetoric in the not-so-distant future. But while it pays lip service to the corporate point of view, it also lacks the nerve to really dig into the complexity of the subject, ultimately delivering us a nice movie dragged down by a simplistic point of view and a dull love triangle angle that feels tossed in at best. Though not without its bright points, including fine performances from Matt Damon and the always great Hal Holbrook, "Promised Land" may do more harm than good for opponents of fracking.

With an environmentally sensitive topic like hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, "Promised Land" has plenty of political baggage before it even begins. Matt Damon plays Steve Butler, a bright up-and-comer in the energy business who at first believes he sees the big picture. When he strolls into a small rural town of McKinley with partner Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand), the land seems ripe for the taking. Hit hard by a tough economy, McKinley appears to be the perfect town to embrace the financial upside of fracking and sell drilling rights. Armed with a convincing sales pitch and some big numbers, it all seems too easy.

But Butler's optimism is short-lived, as grassroots mudslinger Dustin Noble (John Krasinski) begins to undermine Butler's credibility by showing evidence of fracking's environmental dark side. Though the money sounds nice, you don't have to want to hug a tree to know that a field full of dead cows isn't a good thing, and soon the tide starts to shift. Also pitching in is a well-respected schoolteacher (Hal Holbrook), who urges the community to consider what else they're in store for besides handfuls of cash.

The battle between the two sides is clear from fairly early on, though Damon remains earnest and likable despite the screenplay being clearly tilted against him. Krasinski and Damon, who co-wrote the screenplay with David Eggers, are smart enough to hold back a liberal spin as much as possible, but it also can't help but revert to the hero vs. villain routine. That isn't to say there aren't some poignant scenes, particularly as Damon's character begins to understand what else is at stake besides soaring profits. Not content with this argument, however, we end up with an awkward love angle involving the beautiful Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt), and some light melodrama about which guy she's going to choose is both distracting and underdeveloped.

What's most disappointing about "Promised Land," though, is how it eventually tosses aside the darker realities of the fracking argument, which is one that will continue to rage for many years to come as this country begins to see the short-term financial benefits. Though "Promised Land" does at first make a substantial effort to show both sides of the rhetoric, the plot ultimately gets sucked down by the inevitable Hollywood formula, and suddenly we're back in all too familiar territory.

Director Gus Van Sant is a very talented filmmaker, but here he plays it so straight-forward and safe that those talents are mostly a waste. It's easy to imagine a more impactful and poignant film by a sharp satirist like Alexander Payne ("Election") or Jason Reitman ("Thank You For Smoking"), but we're left with a nice story about a nice town with nice people - an angle that is too safe to make a lasting impact about fracking.

This isn't to say that "Promised Land" is a total loss. Ideally it will at least inspire some genuine interest in the subject, which hopefully will lead to real discussion instead of the typical, automatic conservative/liberal split. "Promised Land" makes a strong argument about us taking fracking seriously, though it's not complex or complete enough to inspire much more than a very basic starting point. Ironically, relying on the Hollywood formula won't make the argument any easier for the anti-frackers.

by RTT Staff Writer

For comments and feedback: editorial@rttnews.com

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