Movie Review: Promised Land
The Charlotte Observer
I miss Stanley Kramer.
From the 1940s through the ’70s, he produced and directed movies about Nazism (“Judgment at Nuremberg”), racism (“The Defiant Ones”), anti-intellectualism (“Inherit the Wind”) and every other “ism” likely to keep humans from forming healthy communities.
His pictures were always well-meaning and well-acted, a little preachy in spots – though preaching sound doctrines – and lived up to their middlebrow aspirations. That may sound like faint praise, but he’d be a groundbreaker among the mindless pabulum-spewers in Hollywood these days.
Except for occasional and unnecessary profanity, “Promised Land” is just the sort of movie he might have made. The “ism” in question is unrestricted capitalism. (Please note the adjective and hold those angry e-mails.) Though the film has one major twist and a couple of small ones, it heads from the start in the direction we’d want it to go.
Matt Damon looks and behaves like one of the conflicted, square-jawed heroes Kramer favored, the guys who enter a situation sure of their footing and begin to doubt their stance midway through. He plays Steve Butler, a representative for a fracking company who has been sent to rural Pennsylvania to lease land from farmers for natural gas exploration.
His assistant, Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand), has a pragmatic attitude: She’s smart and competent, yet she’d just as soon by Skyping with her faraway son. Steve has the missionary zeal of a true believer: He thinks fracking will save America from relying on dirty coal and nuclear power.
But he runs into two obstacles: Old science teacher Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook) and young environmentalist Dustin Noble (John Krasinski), who say fracking may permanently damage or destroy the local ecology while providing no guarantee of benefits. A laid-back schoolteacher (Rosemary DeWitt) dallies with Steve and Dustin, weighing their personal if not ideological merits. Eventually, Steve wonders if his position may be shakier than he’d realized.
Damon has co-written three screenplays, always with the co-star of the movie he’s making and always with Gus Van Sant as director. (The others were “Good Will Hunting” with Ben Affleck and “Gerry” with Casey Affleck.) Van Sant moves easily from dreamy, impressionistic narratives to conventional, less stylized storytelling, and he does the latter job well in “Promised Land.”
I wish he’d worked more on the script, which Damon and Krasinski adapted from a story by Dave Eggers, because the writing isn’t always believable.
Would a billion-dollar corporation promote Steve to vice-president for land management, when he’s so naïve about his work and unprepared for opposition to it? Would the sophisticated, ironic guy (Titus Welliver) who flirts a bit with Sue really run a store called Rob’s Guns, Groceries, Guitars and Gas? While Krasinski is well-cast – in fact, everybody is – his most extreme behavior seems unlikely in light of the end of the film.
Yet the movie has some complexity and acknowledges both sides of the issue. Many of these people desperately need financial help, and fracking might be the town’s short-term salvation if nothing goes wrong. Nor does “Promised Land” idealize small-town life: The main elected official in this burg withholds his cooperation in hopes of a better bribe, and one boob living close to poverty immediately blows his lease windfall on a sports car.
“Promised Land” mostly argues for moderation rather than an all-in gamble, for deliberation rather than haste. The N.C. legislature has embraced fracking with gleeful rapidity, so the movie’s especially timely here. Before they pass more bills, may I suggest a matinee screening for lawmakers?