Review: Promised Land (Sold for Beads)

Promised Land

Steve Butler (Matt Damon) buys gas-rich land from farmers and he’s so successful the natural gas company is grooming him for VP. How does he do it? He’s a country boy like his customers, he’s earnest, principled, well-spoken—but that’s not why. He thinks he’s selling farmers salvation. Steve's posture about the hell of farm life and the nirvana of the civilized social hub is inherently tragic. You're heard of the struggle of the American farmer; this is the self-hatred of the American farm boy. Steve’s misguided monologue reads like Pontius Pilot explaining he’s Jesus. From the film’s first anxious moment, we wait for the other shoe to drop.

When Steve and his partner Sue (a perfect Frances McDormand) appear in their next town, they meet opposition from a retired scientist (Hal Holbrook) who knows fracking (the process that follows drilling) can lead to flammable drinking water. No sooner is a vote suggested that a charming activist (John Krasinski) enters town with a horror story about what natural gas drilling did to his family’s farm. The result are as cynical as predictable, but the accomplishment of Promised Land is more subtle than explosive groundswells (if it's similarly perplexing).

Gus Van Sant (Milk) is working with a script by his stars (Damon and Krasinski) and like any script by an actor, character issues are top priority. Van Sant’s stylistic tendencies (reflections, roving cameras, visual textures) are overshadowed by an emphasis on performance (particularly charisma and sincerity), leaving terribly little room for fetish-sized items like the rolling hills. For a film about Big Oil's insatiable plundering of our land and moral fiber, we spend terribly little time meditating on the land. The moral fiber, however, we spend quite some time on.

It's interesting that Damon's austere everyman has to go head-to-head with Krasinski's persuasive every-boy, because the closer you get to their respective kinds of deceit, the more you pick sides; sadly the script never makes such difficult choices. Everyone's got an angle and every angle is forgivable, and that feels about as sturdy as a missing backbone. However, as a meditation on the dueling personalities of the straight-man and the charmer (consider how this plays out in presidential elections), this film makes some points.

It’s been a while since the subject of drilling for oil in the states sounded like our “answer to energy self-sufficiency,” because environmental reports, news and documentaries have given us reason to associate fracking and the sacrilege of combustible water. It's just about impossible to know what to believe here, and the film does nothing to help, but then it's really not that interested in the issues, which can't help feeling like a mistake. To cloud matters further, a documentary called FrackNation alleges Promised Land was partially financed by Natural Gas companies. Contrarily, the doc is pro-fracking. It's ok: we shouldn't be learning from movies anyway, no matter how self-serious they are.

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