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Promised Land (2012)
Movie Reviews

Promised Land (2012)

While not as controversial as protesters claim, it’s nevertheless a disappointing film that seems to be about one thing but is actually about something else entirely.

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All the controversy surrounding Gus Van Sant’s Promised Land centers on the issue of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the practice of drilling deep into underground rock formations to extract natural gas; while supporters focus on the economic benefits, opponents focus on potential environmental impacts, including the migration of gases and hydraulic chemicals to the surface, water and soil contamination, and risk to air quality. It has been claimed, mostly by the filmmakers raising funds for the as-yet-unreleased pro-fracking documentary FrackNation, that Promised Land would portray fracking in a negative light, and that anti-fracking sentiment is but a trend that started with the release of the Oscar-nominated documentary Gasland in 2010. It was also reported that Promised Land was funded in part by a subsidiary of Abu Dhabi Media, which is owned by the United Arab Emirates, which is a member of OPEC.

I list these facts not to bore you, but merely to show you why I believe those protesting Promised Land are getting worked up over nothing. Fracking is not at all what the film is about; it’s merely the filter through which Van Sant and screenwriters Matt Damon and John Krasinski, both of whom star, view a rather generic story of business ethics and personal morality. Knowing this, I would wager that most, if not all, of those who spoke out against the film did so before actually seeing it. I would also wager that those who have seen it and are continuing to object to its political content aren’t looking deeply enough into it. If you can see your way past the surface, even though it seems a lot of audiences can’t nowadays, you may find that no real political or social message is being delivered. It’s all fairly character driven.

Given everything I’ve said thus far, I fear I’ve given you the wrong impression about my feelings for this film. Promised Land is sincere but unsuccessful, a film that seems to be about one thing yet ends up being about something else entirely. I’m not referring to the fracking, which I knew fairly early on was intended to be viewed symbolically. I’m referring to the way the leads are developed in conjunction with the plot; just when we think it’s about two desperate men engaged in a sociopolitical pissing contest, we’re thrown for a loop and discover it’s actually about what an entire corporation is willing to do in order to come out on top. I honestly don’t know if I’m more bothered by the sudden twist or by everything leading up to it. A bait-and-switch so rarely works well in the movies.

One of the two men is Steve Butler (Damon), a smooth-talking corporate salesperson for a major natural gas company. He, along with his sales partner, Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand), are sent to a rural farming community hit hard by the recent recession; their mission is to buy drilling rights from the locals and drum up support for their company. Butler, initially so cool and confident, begins to sweat just a little when a retired engineer named Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook), who now volunteers at the local high school as a science teacher, voiced his opposition towards drilling up the community. Yates is not being a rabble-rouser; he’s expressing genuine concern on the basis of his own research and years of experience.

Real trouble comes in the form of Dustin Noble (Krasinski), an environmental activist from a little-known organization that’s apparently new. He’s well equipped with his liberal propaganda – the posters of cows lying dead on a field, the posts to hammer in place along the road, the pamphlets detailing the evils of fracking, the barnyard model to set on fire in front of a classroom full of children. Realizing he’s a bigger threat than was initially believed, Butler attempts to outdo Noble by building a last-minute country fair in the middle of a field. At a certain point, it’s no longer about a businessman trying to outsmart his environmentalist rival; it’s about which one of them can shout the loudest and be heard. Or is it? I give the filmmakers credit for working in a plot twist that’s genuinely surprising, although I have yet to convince myself that it was appropriate given the material.

There’s something to be said for the fact that the film is built more around character than around politics. But even then, not enough of an effort was made. Consider the character of Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt), a schoolteacher Butler meets in a bar; her only apparent purpose, apart from creating even more friction between Butler and Noble, is to pop up every so often and chat flirtatiously. She factors into the second stage of an overly idealized ending, which has all the narrative resolutions yet curiously lacks any emotional payoff. I honestly don’t know if Promised Land would have benefited from being either pro- or anti-fracking. All I do know is that, even though the naysayers have absolutely nothing to worry about in terms of political content, general audiences would do well to lower their expectations.

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About the Author: Chris Pandolfi