I'm not here to discuss the pros and cons of fracking, the controversial process used to extract petroleum and natural gas from the earth. I'm just here to discuss director Gus Van Sant's new drama “Promised Land,” a film primarily interested in illustrating the cons of fracking.
The script was written by Matt Damon and John Krasinski (Jim from “The Office”), who also star. Damon plays Steve Butler, a perfectly likable guy who works as a closer for the gas companies. He visits rural towns with large gas reserves and, with the help of his partner Sue (Frances McDormand), convinces the land owners to sign over the rights to their land.
Steve and Sue arrive in the small town full of the usual characters, like a wise retiree played by Hal Holbrook who has researched the dangers of fracking and a wild young redneck played by Lucas Black who just wants that big money check.
Their task becomes much harder with the appearance of environmentalist Dustin Noble (Krasinski), who begins to rally the townsfolk by illustrating how devastating fracking can be to their community.
I have nothing against films that have an agenda, political or otherwise, but I do not like it when the movie is preachy (even if I agree). For instance, I won't argue that the U.S. health care system has some flaws, but I hated “John Q” because the film just harped on that message for two hours. I still have a headache from the time “The Life of David Gale” hit me over the cranium with a mallet for two hours to make sure I understood it was against the death penalty.
“Promised Land” isn't as preachy as those two films, to be fair, but it's not far off. The script, based on a story by Dave Eggers, provides well-rounded enough characters so that I actually cared (a little) about what was going on. Damon is good as the conflicted hero who is actually stopping to think about what he does. Holbrook makes every scene he's in better the moment he appears.
I also enjoyed Rosemarie DeWitt as a school teacher that Steve has a crush on, even if the romantic subplot was forced and unnecessary. Still, her scenes provided a nice break from the “fracking is bad!” sermon.
I also think that Gus Van Sant was the wrong choice to direct this film. It's a bland-looking film content with showing pristine rural landscapes, so we have a constant reminder of what the gas companies are about to completely destroy (the film's message, not mine). This is a low point for Van Sant, who has made several wonderful films, including “Good Will Hunting” (also written by Damon), “To Die For,” “Milk” and the harrowing “Elephant.”
Really, this material devolves into such an anti-fracking infomercial that I felt like it wasted the time of all of these talented people. I kept smiling when I saw familiar faces, but only because I fondly remember McDormand in “Fargo” or Black in “Sling Blade.”
I tried (valiantly, I believe) to stay interested in the plot and the characters, or notice any interesting filmmaking techniques, but by the time “Promised Land” was nearing the end all I could see were the beads of sweat rolling down the preacher's face.
“Promised Land” is rated R for language.