The anti-fracking message that follows is an international conspiracy against the U.S. domestic natural gas industry by Hollywood and the oil-rich United Emirates. I’m only half-joking about the conspiracy part, but when a Middle Eastern company helps fund a movie that throws its natural-resource competitor under the bus you do have to wonder just a bit. Especially since the film was released one day after the announcement that oil-rich Al Jazeera purchased Al “Fossil Fuels Are Killing the Planet” Gore’s Current TV.
That bit of snark out of the way, Promised Land—written by costars Matt Damon and John Krasinski and directed by Gus Van Sant—is a ridiculous piece of agitprop that aims for China Syndrome topicality but winds up a cartoonish Captain Planet wherein the process of hydraulic fracturing is depicted as bad simply because a wizened old coot (portrayed by Hal Holbrook because, presumably, Wilford Brimley wasn’t available) says it is and a hippy environmentalist sets a farm diorama on fire in front of grade-school kids.
That’s as “deep” as the film examines fracking, which is never referred to as hydraulic fracturing in Promised Land, and never explained in anything resembling truthful terms. In fact, the most compelling argument presented against fracking in the movie – dead cattle who drank contaminated ground water – is debunked in the film’s climax.
Speaking of the film’s climax, it features some of the worst plot developments ever concocted for the silver screen, and would’ve rated a failing grade in any reputable Screenwriting 101 class. This writer loathes spoilers, so suffice to say it’s not so much the whiff of environmental damage threatened by fracking that turns our hero (Damon) against the procedure – but the duplicity of the company who practices it.
Yeah, it’s that weak.
Damon plays Steve Butler, a shill for a natural gas company (with Global in the title, natch). Butler comes to a small town with his compatriot Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand) to buy up leases from farmers who could potentially earn millions in the deal. His antagonist is Dustin Noble (a stupidly named character played by Krasinski) who represents a small environmental group, Athena. Noble charms the local schoolmarm (Rosemary DeWitt) upon whom Butler has set his romantic sights. Old Man Holbrook is a MIT graduate, PhD and retired Boeing engineer who just wants to be left alone to raise midget horses without the ruckus proposed by natural gas drilling.
Butler and Thomason conveniently deliver packages of cold hard cash to bribe Noble and the town supervisor. When the chips are down, they also orchestrate a town picnic with pig races and a Ferris wheel—how two people with no public relations or event management help manage to set up such an event overnight is beyond comprehension or believability. Likewise claims by Butler that he grew up in an Iowa farming community when the character can’t even drive a stick shift. It seems Butler’s back story involves OEM Caterpiller pulling up stakes from his home town, subsequently decimating the livelihoods of all the farms in the community. Scratching your head yet?
Astute readers and avid film watchers may remember the film Local Hero from 30 years ago. In that film, Peter Riegert is sent to a remote Scottish village by oilman Burt Lancaster to buy up oil leases. Riegert’s epiphany is more believable than Butler’s as Riegert is charmed by, among other quirky denizens of the seaside community, a beautiful mermaid.
Of course, both Butler and Riegert ignore the will of the majority of the respective Midwest and Scottish villagers who desire to make big bucks for leasing drilling rights once the pair “go native” and experience a change of heart.
Did I mention Local Hero is a comedy? Promised Land, alas, is not. Not intentionally that is.
Bruce Edward Walker is arts and culture critic for The Michigan View, where this review first appeared. Reprinted with permission.