'Promised Land' is a promise unfulfilled

CorrespondentJanuary 3, 2013 

  • Promised Land B Cast: Matt Damon, John Krasinski, Rosemary DeWitt, Frances McDormand Director: Gus Van Sant Website: Length: 1 hour, 46 minutes Rating: R (for language) Theaters (factbox_subhead) xxTheaterListxx

An engrossing, but ultimately frustrating, film that takes on a hugely divisive issue in dramatic terms, “Promised Land” stars Matt Damon as an energy company employee trying to convince poor, rural Pennsylvanians to lease their lands so his bosses can drill on them and extract the natural gas underneath.

I’ll admit up front I knew almost nothing about fracking – the controversial way in which natural gas is extracted from shale deposits – and cared even less, until I saw this film. So on one level, the script, co-written by Damon and “The Office’s” John Krasinski, taught me a lot, and in decidedly non-didactic terms.

In fact, the best thing about “Promised Land,” which is slickly made and extremely well-acted, is that it even-handedly presents both sides of the controversy. Damon’s character, a former small town boy, sees himself as a good person, offering these working-class folks the kind of money that will allow them to escape the desperate, rundown Nowhereville towns they live in. He’s motivated by seeing his own Iowa town destroyed economically when its major employer closed down, and honestly feels that the Norman Rockwell image of rural America is as dead as Rockwell himself. So why not take the money he’s offering – which he refers to in the film’s best scene as ‘f—you money,’ and get out of Dodge?

But he’s not the only word on the subject. Contrasting his vision is Krasinski, playing an environmental activist who comes to town to show the locals that, in fact, fracking is really, really dangerous – the chemicals used can kill livestock, pollute the groundwater and basically make the surrounding area as dead as the moon.

It’s a nice setup. And with Frances McDormand and Rosemary DeWitt along as, respectively, Damon’s wisecracking partner and a local schoolteacher he has the hots for, “Promised Land” has an attractive, and highly accomplished, cast.

Give the film credit. In an industry where the screens are dominated by films based on comic books, young-adult novels, toys and theme-park rides, it takes guts to produce something that takes on an important social and political issue. Unfortunately, the filmmakers failed to have the courage of their convictions – about three-quarters of the way through, “Promised Land” runs off the tracks. Krasinski turns out to be not what he seems (no spoilers here), and Damon makes a move that could only come out of the Frank Capra school of schmaltzy endings.

It’s a real shame, because Damon, who seems to be convincing in almost every role he chooses, is terrific in the film, and his willingness to take on this kind of subject matter is encouraging.

But because “Promised Land” chickens out and opts for an ending that is part inconclusive and part Hollywood feel-good, it works better as an introduction to the fracking issue than the strong political statement it could have been.

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