If you want a movie about hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking, watch the documentary Gasland. If you want a drama about fracking, then you are fortunate Hollywood’s oft self-righteous piety will turn any ˜special interest politics’ into a film. Gus Van Sant’s Promised Land, written by and starring Matt Damon and John Krasinski, is, for the most part, more than just a preachy vehicle for environmental evangelism, with just a glance at its vital statistics you are left with little illusion as to what is in store for you; strong performances from an excellent cast, an engaging script with good characterisation, a pleasing depth of personal development and a firm yet schmaltzy middle finger to capitalism from the humble ˜everymen’ of Rust Belt America.
Steve Butler (Matt Damon) is a rep for Global, seeking to literally buy the ground out from under the inhabitants of McKinley, Pennsylvania. In an interesting take on the traditional cynical corporate stooge, Steve actually believes the hype. The fate of his hometown, having already suffered from the rural decline that threatens many small towns, motivates him to present others the ˜out’ his family never had. This motivation provides him with a degree of honesty that not only makes him peculiarly suited for his job, but allows us to sympathise with him right off the bat, even if borders on an almost unrealistic level of naivety. This is a departure from the traditional corporate protagonist who starts from a position of antagonism then realises the error of his ways. Indeed, even his less scrupulous and more corporately aware partner: Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand) is humanised by her own personal hardships and the need to support her son.
With an initial flannel shirted charm offensive in their beaten up hire car, Steve and Sue are portrayed as honestly as any hardened salesman can be. Steve’s kindly interaction with a customer’s kid has no sense of cynicism and the compelling nature of their salesmanship even has the viewer agreeing that what they offer is in the best interest of the town. Thanks to excellent performances from Damon and McDormand, their pleas for acceptance actually seem to come from the heart and with the introduction of the excellently wry local: Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt), as a subtle romantic foil for Steve, we are comfortably able to look beyond typical soulless corporate executives and see human beings.
The introduction of environmentalist Dustin Noble (John Krasinski) however throws a spanner in their works as he swiftly sets about winning the hearts and minds of both the town and Alice. With an aggressively negative campaign he demonises fracking and the Global representatives, a tactic, which given our established sympathy for Steve and Sue, actually places him in an unusually antagonistic role. Over time however we’re shown the human side of Dustin who has his own story of personal tragedy and gradually the cracks start to appear in Steve’s demeanour. Slowly the balance of power shifts, as the earlier interaction with the customer’s child is seen as the cynical stunt it was, with Steve repeating his spiel verbatim to another customer’s child. Yet despite our increasing awareness of his corporate side, his motivations remain good and empathy is unusually easy for his cause.
For the most part Promised Land operates cleverly in the grey areas between cinematic extremes. With Steve and Dustin representing flawed yet passionate proponents of the causes they each feel are just. This dynamic is also mirrored in the locals, whose superb performances touch on the argument from an alternative perspective, with high school science teacher Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook) preaching caution and local store owner Rob (Titus Welliver) supporting both the cause and Sue with whom he has a clear albeit understated attraction.
Sadly Promised Land can’t contain its Hollywood vitriol beyond the second act and as the third gets under way any sense of subtlety becomes a distant afterthought. With a ˜big reveal’ that drives home the film’s agenda with the delicacy of a cartoon loudhailer, we’re left with a sense of patronisation that really can only make you wonder: who was the film made for? If you need to blatantly red stamp a corporation EVIL, then why bother working so hard on two subtle acts; likewise, anyone who has loved the film to this point can’t help but feel slightly let down by the cop-out of a finale. Not only does this blatant finale detract from the message, but it also detracts from Steve’s personal journey as the realisation of what truly matters seem not to come from within, but from an external source. After all, one can’t call it a personal journey if something forces your hand and effectively pushes you to your destination.
Promised Land is ultimately a good film and until the end is surprisingly balanced in its view of this contentious subject. If not for this finale it could actually be considered a strong drama with superb direction and brilliant character acting across the board, however with the most important part of the story handled so dreadfully it’ll more likely be remembered as Hollywood schmaltz and damned with that faintest of praise: being ˜enjoyable’.