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Review: Promised Land (2012)

Promised Land (2012)

Directed by: Gus Van Sant

Premise: Representatives for a natural gas company (Matt Damon and Frances McDormand) visit a rural town and try to convince locals to lease their land for hydraulic fracturing (also known as fracking). The representatives find themselves in a fight with an environmentalist (John Krasinski).

What Works: Promised Land centers around the subject of fracking and that sets this film up to be a potentially didactic piece. The filmmakers recognize that and even though they have a discernible take on the issue (it’s clear that they are opposed to fracking) the filmmakers make a few interesting choices in their approach to dramatizing the issue. The main decision in that regard is making the main character of Promised Land, ostensibly the hero that the audience is supposed to empathize with, an employee of the natural gas company, played by Matt Damon. The story unfolds through his eyes and the filmmakers don’t portray him as a conniving or deceitful character. In fact, he is shown to be empathetic to the plight of the farmers and he believes he is providing a financial way out of a dying lifestyle. In a similar way the filmmakers generally handle the rural characters with an appropriate level of respect. Often when Hollywood tells stories about rural folks they come off as simpletons and hicks such as in movies like Deliverance and Fargo. Promised Land has its share of rubes but in general the locals are treated as authentic human beings with both flaws and virtues.  

What Doesn’t: Even though Promised Land is centered around the hot topic of fracking, this film needs to be understood as a piece of drama. A feature film like Promised Land is distinctly different from a documentary like Gasland. Where the purpose of a documentary is to inform and persuade the audience based primarily upon facts, a drama seeks to illustrate the human dimensions of a situation or a topic. In this case, it is incumbent upon the filmmakers of Promised Land to dramatize what the debate over fracking does to a community and the personal stakes of that debate for individuals. Unfortunately, Promised Land does not do that well enough. The filmmakers establish a conflict between Damon’s character and an environmentalist played by John Krasinski but their debate does not evolve much over the course of the story and very little actually happens in the film. The conflict between Damon and Krasinski’s characters sets up a struggle of values that could be quite compelling but that debate is curiously absent from the film. Fracking is never adequately explained in the course of the story and so viewers who are not familiar with the details of the drilling technique may find themselves lost. This becomes a critical lapse by the filmmakers because it is never clear what is at stake in the story. There is a lot of talk about money to be made but the story does not manifest the possibilities, positive or negative, in a concrete way. This may be a result of the filmmaker’s oversensitive approach. It is admirable that they want to recognize a greater complexity in the issue but in their attempt to avoid offending anyone they walk too softly and create a story that is very flat. The flatness springs from a failure to characterize anyone in the film. Most townspeople only appear in a single scene and there is no development to their understanding of the issue. Promised Land is structured as a redemption plotline and for that to work Damon’s character ought to be forced into a confrontation between his job and his values. The moviemakers fumble that confrontation with a poorly handled romance with a local school teacher and a clumsy reversal in the ending that forces the redemption instead of growing it organically out of the drama.

Bottom Line: Promised Land is an underwhelming drama. It does not reveal anything interesting or provocative about the fracking debate and it does not dramatize it in a way that is very compelling. It does manage to be passably entertaining but not much more than that.

Episode: #422 (January 13, 2013)