Reviewed by Ian Forbes
In the past few years, the issue of how we obtain natural gas has become a hot button issue. Companies do it by using Hydraulic Fracturing, commonly referred to as Fracking (which is not a swearword from Battlestar Galactica). The industry says it’s safe and environmentalists say we’re poisoning the water table and one needs only spend a few seconds on YouTube to find a video where someone lights their running tap water on fire.
Such is the backdrop for director Gus Van Sant’s new film, Promised Land, based on a story by Dave Eggers with the screenplay duties being handled by Matt Damon and John Krasinski. Damon plays a hot shot at a natural gas company who’s got a track record of convincing small, rural towns to sell mining rights to their property; and doing his best not to have them asking questions the company doesn’t want to answer. He’s joined by another silver-tongued salesperson played by Frances McDormand and the pair thinks the town will be just like every other they worked.
Complications arise when a local teacher (Hal Holbrook) raises concerns and the arrival of John Krasinski portraying an environmental advocate further extends the town confusion and debate. There are also small romantic subplots between Damon and Rosemarie DeWitt, and McDormand and Titus Welliver – which for me is where the film loses its way but more on that in a second.
Van Sant and the script do a nice job of boiling down the issue of fracking; the reasons why some people sign off on the notion without doing their due diligence and why others raise their voices in alarm. It’s likely the natural gas industry will be doing what they can to rebuff claims made in the movie but while it’s clear the slant skews one way, it’s not as completely villainous as one might expect.
All of the performances are decent but problems arise via the budding romances (see, I got to my earlier comment). For most of the film it’s fine and adds a bit of humanity to both Damon and McDormand’s characters but the final ten minutes of the movie completely undercut all of the work done to present a film about issues only to replace it with something screening audiences would sign off on. Looking back on it, the inclusion of these elements almost felt like Damon and Krasinski were following screenwriting rules rather than the story’s own path.
I also found issue with some of the score work done by Danny Elfman. His compositions are nice to listen to here but I heard many of the same elements in the last film he, Damon and Van Sant all worked together on: Good Will Hunting. Echoing that sentiment, some of the music feels like Van Sant wishing he had more Elliott Smith songs. They’re lovely to listen to as well but it all felt a little like people trying to recapture the magic in the bottle from 15 years ago rather than focusing on an entirely new project.
The bottom line is that Van Sant and company almost had their hands on a really special film but let it slip away from them in its resolution. It’s hard to say whether the movie will gain any notoriety or just fall away from public consciousness, as I’m writing these words a month before Promised Land opens in limited release. However, even if you are interested in the film, it’s probably a better idea to wait for the home market and thereby minimize possible financial loss. Your 42″ HDTV will handle the imagery just fine, and at no point does Damon get amnesia and awaken a super spy.
Also, just a reminder that it’s always prudent to do research on both sides of any issue before making up your mind so anyone out there who thinks this movie review is anti-fracking propaganda can now shut it (anyone who thinks I shorted the quality of the film can leave a comment.) People interested purely in the topic of fracking can look at a documentary from 2010, Gasland – which is decidedly anti-fracking. If there were a completed pro-fracking doc out there I’d recommend it but as far as I know there is not. A group is trying to make one called FrackNation but I have no idea how far along they are.
Promised Land hits theaters on December 28, 2012 and is rated R for language.
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