Friday, January 04, 2013

Promised Land

PROMISED LAND (Gus Van Sant, 2012)

Steve Butler (Matt Damon) knows firsthand how small towns can be ravaged in a down economy.  Born and raised in Iowa, he saw how the closure of a Caterpillar plant devastated the community.  Unlike many of those he grew up with, Steve got out and is enjoying success as a representative for a global natural gas company.  He travels to rural areas to persuade property owners to sell drilling rights on their land.  Steve isn’t ignorant of the risks involved with hydraulic fracturing, otherwise known as fracking, but he is convinced that what he does improves the lives of the struggling folks he encounters.  Any charity Steve feels for them doesn’t interfere with his knack for securing contracts for the lowest price possible, though.    

In PROMISED LAND Steve and co-worker Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand) expect a short stay for their assignment to close deals in a small Pennsylvania town, but gaining local approval is complicated when science teacher Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook) raises objections during a town hall meeting and the citizens postpone a vote on the matter for three weeks.  Then Dustin Noble (John Krasinski), an environmental activist from Nebraska, rolls into Miller Falls warning everyone that fracking can lead to dead livestock, land that can no longer be farmed, and contaminated ground water.  His message quickly gains traction and raises the pressure on Steve and Sue to deliver.

The makers of PROMISED LAND clearly object to fracking but attempt, not always successfully, to explore the issue without stacking the deck in favor of its viewpoint. Steve counters critics with the contention that natural gas is a clean, domestically plentiful alternative to coal and oil. Even if one doesn’t fully buy his argument, rejecting natural gas means implicitly accepting dirty energy sources and relying on overseas suppliers.  Fracking will bring an influx of money to the area and may restore a place and population that is economically disadvantaged.  In the end the situation boils down to which risks are the ones worth taking.
Damon and Krasinski, who co-wrote the screenplay, and director Gus Van Sant approach PROMISED LAND like a Frank Capra film.  The American people and process are trusted to arrive at the right decision, even if opposing forces are working to manipulate them.  The townsfolk are credibly portrayed as being aware of what’s at stake, if not fully informed, and susceptible to the lure of easy, much-needed money. Steve and Dustin are on different sides but generally seem sincere in their efforts.

PROMISED LAND is at its best when showcasing the details of life in a self-contained agricultural community and the strategies and affectations Steve, Sue, and Dustin employ to influence the people there.  For all of his good intentions, Steve is something of a huckster.  Damon plays him with genuine charm and strong compartmentalizing abilities.  Krasinski displays his everyman appeal as his character effortlessly ingratiates himself with the locals.  The film’s middle section amuses with the maneuvering and passive-aggressive interactions between Steve and Dustin.

PROMISED LAND is well-acted and observed, although two flaws emerge.  Steve and Sue are more flustered by the presence of a single environmentalist than a couple of old pros should be.  PROMISED LAND tends to be savvy about risks and rewards, but one turn of events is unearned.  The development doesn’t ruin the film but wipes out the balance it was striving for.  

Grade: B

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