Promised Land

This should have been a great movie: starring Matt Damon and Francis McDormand, one of my favourite actors, and hinging on a hot topic, hydraulic fracturing or fracking. Somehow it didn’t do it for me, although it has had rave reviews in some parts of the US, and been panned in others. Perhaps this just reflects the polarisation of views on fracking. That debate is, as we know, just starting in the UK, so Promised Landis a timely contribution to the debate – maybe.

Set in an unnamed rural community, which from the outside looks picture post-card, pretty and prosperous, we soon discover that all is not as it seems. When Steve Butler (Damon) and his partner Sue Thomason (McDormand) arrive to buy drilling concessions for their multi-billion-dollar employers Global, we find the town is dying. The farmers are all in debt – production costs more than market price – and there is an air of desperation. Perfect ground for sowing multinational dollars, you would think. 

Steve and Sue have all the patter and charm of the snake oil salesman and things seem to be going their way, until they meet some opposition from the respected local teacher (Hal Holbrook). To add to their frustration, enter Dustin Noble (John Krasinski) as a grassroots environmentalist, who not only tries to muddy their campaign but also moves in on Steve’s girl. Drama unfolds.

Except that it doesn’t. I found the first part of the film so slow that I dozed off, and then spent the rest of the time wondering where it was going. Make no mistake, the acting is top notch, although McDormand is under-used; Damon and Krasinski play well together, Steve defensive and angry, Dustin as cool and confident as the man with the winning hand can be. The cinematography is superb – the countryside luscious and green, panning helicopter shots make it appear the eponymous ‘promised land’. 

What is also convincing is the portrayal of the dilemma facing folk confronted with a choice between a life of debt and a quick fix of dollars which, according to Steve’s script, will provide money for their kids to go to college and escape this living hell. Who doesn’t want the best for their kids? There is a great scene in which Steve is confronted by locals, angry at having to make such hard choices, tempted by the money but deep-down knowing that this could end up by blighting their town. His heartfelt tirade on ‘fuck-you money’ backfires, but highlights his own growing ambivalence: ‘I’m not a bad guy,’ he repeats endlessly in his own defence and, initially at least, he earnestly believes that he is offering a solution to the hardships caused by recession.

There’s always people for whom the allure of filthy lucre is irresistible; here one squirms at how simple folk can be easily tempted. All this contributes to the debate on fracking – good or evil. It is, in reality, shades of grey, as are most things. The research is not, I believe, altogether damming on fracking; oil reserves are running out and it does offer lifeline in the recession. Perhaps, as with the debate on GM foods, it’s too early to know whether it blights or benefits communities.

Maybe it stems from the fact that Damon, who co-wrote the script with Krasinski, was to make his editorial debut with this movie but, due to scheduling conflicts, had to call in Gus Van Sant. On balance, the film seems to be more about the lengths that multinationals will go to win the day, and rather leaves the fracking issue high and dry. Was this the intention? If so, it is a missed opportunity.

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