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Promised Land (2012)

| January 11, 2013 | 0 Comments

Gus Van Sant’s Promised Land is a social message drama that leaves you wondering if you couldn’t learn more about its subject in a documentary.  Maybe a textbook.  Heck, even a quick internet search would do.  The same story has been told before, it was a great documentary three years ago in Josh Fox’s GasLand, which told the same story without the pretentious and phony drama getting in the way.  Real life comes with its own drama.  That earlier film presented the unforgettable sight of a man igniting his kitchen tap water with a cigarette lighter.  Van Sant’s fiction film can’t come close to that.

The documentary dealt unblinkingly with the problems brought to small town farmers by natural gas companies that swoop into their communities and buy up large portions of land in order to mine for natural gas that is hidden in the shale under the earth’s surface.  The residents are told that signing on with the company will make them rich, but are not told that the process, called “fracking”, drenches the soil with toxic chemicals.

In Promised Land, the job of buying up the land falls on two corporate representatives, Steve Butler (Matt Damon) and Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand).  Their job is to go to the schools and talk to the residents en masse and then sit with the locals individually at their kitchen tables and convince them that the money from the drilling with create a better future for their children.  Sue is an old pro at this, but Steve is still young.  He has the talent for double talk and it doesn’t hurt that he also has a nice face to go along with it.  Confronted in a bar one night by some hicks playing pool (in the movies, hicks in bars are always playing pool) warn him to get outta town.  That’s fine as far as the cliché goes, but then director Van Sant can’t resist throwing in the most beautiful woman in the tri-state area (Rosemary DeWitt) for Damon to fall in love with.   Pa-leese!

Two issues present themselves almost immediately that throw a kink in the plan.  First is a highly-informed elderly school teacher (Hal Holbrook) who wants to raise a grassroots campaign against the company.  The other is an environmental pest named Dustin Noble (John Krasinski), who warns the population not to sign on with the company and even visits classrooms at the local elementary schools to show children the real effects of fracking.

The plot sounds better than it plays out.  The drama here is phony and forced and you can see nearly every dramatic turn coming (except one twist that does work very well).  Yes, the corruption of gas companies is real but the drama here is not.  You have to look between the lines to find the reality in a situation that is manipulating the audience.

The other chief problem is in the character of Steve.  He is a good guy, a smart average joe who is earnest and kind.  That works for the manipulation of the townsfolk but we never sense the cold heart that would allow him to do this.  In fact, that screenplay (which he wrote) doesn’t allow Steve any blemishes at all.  He’s naïve and that seems at odds with the job he’s been given to do. Promised Land is a well-intentioned movie that kind of jerks you around. The issues are all presented in black and white and they don’t ask any real questions or present any real issues. See GasLand instead.  That film is shattering, this one is merely a whimper.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2012) View IMDB Filed in: Drama