(This review originally appeared at Reel Film News on December 31, 2012.)
In our push to liberate ourselves from foreign oil, a process called “fracking” – hydraulic fracturing of land in order to extract elements to be used for natural gas – has started taking center stage in our discourse on energy alternatives. The process has been bandied about and has both positives and negatives; a lot of focus has been put on the environmental effects and the drawbacks that this process can have. Gus Van Sant’s Promised Land takes us into the lives of two oil company employees tasked with the job of buying out an economically stagnant small town for fracking purposes. Working from a script by stars Matt Damon and John Krasinski, Van Sant focuses on characters that make this country move, no matter how small or large.
No matter what the subject matter is, a film like Promised Land stands on its own merits, thanks to convincing performances by all involved. The movie honestly feels like a much more serious version of 2005’s Thank You For Smoking (complete with a very small reference to it, as well), with Damon playing the lead role of Steve Butler, an energy company employee noted for his ability to reap financial success by “buying” towns out from under its people for oil drilling. His new target comes with a little wrinkle; he’s being fast-tracked for a executive promotion, pending the outcome of his latest conquest – a small town in Pennsylvania rumored to be rich with the shale that the oil companies so desire. Accompanying him on this venture is Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand), who’s essentially there to back him up, get more leases signed, and make sure that Steve does his job properly. But when environmental activist Dustin Noble (Krasinski) shows up and starts poisoning the townspeople against Steve and Sue, their stance goes from self-assured to completely desperate… and while it’s fun to watch them squirm, it’s also fun to watch the townspeople and their individual personalities.
Promised Land is a fairly unassuming, quiet portrait of a small town and its citizens as they come to a love/hate relationship with Steve and Sue. Some say “What took you so long?” and welcome them with open arms, seduced by the promise of quick and easy money; others tell them to get out of town and leave them alone. Perennial character actor Lucas Black shines in his small role as the redneck who buys so readily into the dream of making a fast dollar by selling his meager acreage; Rosemarie DeWitt’s Alice pops her head in as a fairly level-headed teacher who starts pulling Steve’s heart in a different direction than the one he had when he came to town. But the real joy is seeing Hal Holbrook – a favorite of mine since Creepshow in 1982 – portray a schoolteacher dead-set against having anything to do with these fracking operations. At age 87, Holbrook still knows how to emote wonderful performances and give his directors excellent characterizations; he imbues his performance with such a well-worn soul that he is that voice of reason that we all long to hear in this overly crazy, fast-paced world.
Van Sant has put together a fine film; it’s not necessarily outstanding in any regard or ostentatious in any way. It goes about its business, tells its story, and leaves you to think about what rules our lives – our hearts or our wallets. Damon and Krasinski’s script does paint the oil industry as a soulless industry, with people only concerned for their bottom line, coming in under budget, and having their way with the populace. The film’s voice never rises to a shout, but it’s easy enough to hear; regardless of what your stance on fracking may be, Promised Land is a worthy performance-driven piece that’s worth your time.
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