Promised Land Movie Review

Featuring: Matt Damon, Hal Holbrook, Frances McDormand, John Krasinski, Rosemarie DeWitt
Director: Gus Van Sant
Screenplay: John Krasinski, Matt Damon (screenplay); Dave Eggers (story)
Australian release date: Thursday, 25th April

Reviewer: rolanstein
One-word verdict: earnest

Sales partners Steve (Matt Damon) and Sue (Frances McDormand) work for Global, a mining company seeking to tap into natural gas reserves across the American farming heartland via the potentially environmentally damaging deep drilling process known as ‘fracking’. The duo is confident of earning some juicy commissions as they descend on the small farming community in their crosshairs, armed with promises of fat royalty cheques for farmers willing to sign over the mining rights to their land. However, pickings are not as easy as anticipated. Clued-up and respected local high school science teacher (Hal Holbrook) publicly takes on Steve at his well-attended town hall sales presentation. Subsequent damage control strategies are undermined when environmental activist Dustin (John Krasinski) rolls into town and mounts a well-orchestrated and potent anti-fracking campaign. But there is more to this fight than meets the eye…and a twist that dumps Steve in a moral dilemma that shakes him to his core.

Review: (rolanstein)
There is clearly an underlying agenda to this film: to draw public attention to fracking and its pros and – mostly – cons (take that word how you will).

The inherent problem with harnessing any dramatic work to an external cause is that plot and character are too often manipulated in the service of that cause, and dramatic function compromised. The trick is to keep the puppet master’s strings well hidden, which calls for ingenious sleight of hand and dramatic expertise.

Plaudits on both counts to director Gus Van Sant, and the writers and cast – to a point.

Much effort and skill has gone into fleshing out and humanising the characters, lest they be relegated to mere mouthpieces articulating opposing sides of the fracking argument.

Steve the Bad Guy, for example, is not a bad guy! He’s not a slick city sales sleaze who sees the farmers simply as sales prospects to be milked of commission; he was raised on a farm that had to be sold when times turned bad, and understands the financial struggle of those who work the land. He truly believes that the day of the small farm is over, that he and Global are offering a way out for struggling farmers doomed to unrelenting hardship. Yes, he’s open to ruthless tactics to get the best deal for his company and himself, but he believes in his product – he’s a salesman, not a fraudster.

And Matt Damon does decent and affable so well, you can’t help but like Steve as a character, however despicable his corporation might be. His shyness when he meets flirty Alice in the pub on his first night in town is endearing, as is his bumbling eagerness to please when she pushes him into a drinking competition, and his unprofessionalism when he comes to next morning with a mother of a hangover and realises he’s late for a crucial sales presentation.

His sales partner, Sue, is a single mother whose primary concern is providing for her children. If there are sometimes ethically dodgy elements to her job, well, that’s just walkin’ the walk to a decent income. As she sits in her motel room at night Skyping her teenage son, we can easily understand and forgive any job-related moral shortcomings. She is working in a greater personal cause many will relate to.

The position of the farmers, too, is complex; they are torn by conflicting forces. Some are tempted to sell out their farms for quick cash, but most are proud of their history on the land, and see their farms as part of their ancestry, intrinsic to who they are. Few are prepared to blithely sign away these precious intangibles for financial gain, especially when they realise that their land may be rendered unusable by the toxic fracking process. But then there is their children’s education to consider, and debt, and the threat of foreclosure…

The closest Van Sant comes to laying bare the film’s agenda is also one of the dramatic pivot points: the town hall meeting at which Hal Holbrook’s high school teacher character eloquently takes on Steve point-for-point, turning his sales presentation into a public debate on fracking. This scene encapsulates the difficulties of agenda-driven filmmaking. It’s necessary narratively, yet detracts from the film as an immersive audience engagement by placing poor old Hal on a soapbox. His acting is fine; it’s the didacticism infiltrating the scene that is the problem.

There is a doozy of a plot twist towards the end that puts Steve to the fire as a character and transforms the film from topical issue piece to morality play. This is where the sleight of hand referred to earlier comes in; it’s effected quite masterfully (which is why the twist works so well), apparent only in retrospectively scrutinising the plot and character setups. This is sounding all very vague and theoretical, but spoiler consciousness precludes elaboration.

Ironically, this standout dramatic manoeuvre undermines the anti-fracking message of the movie! Again, I can’t say how without being a dirty low-down spoiler.

All in all, Promised Land is an enjoyable but ultimately lightweight flick that manages to transcend its earnest agenda-driven nature to work quite well dramatically – it’s even a bit affecting at its climax (shame about the cheesy closing scene, though).

As well-intentioned as the filmmakers doubtless were, however, alerting the public to the risks of fracking is best left to documentaries like Gasland that deal in fact, rather than fiction.

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8 thoughts on “Promised Land Movie Review”

  1. Yes, we’re pretty much in accord on this one. I enjoyed it, but it felt a bit lacking in passion.
    Actually, I disagree that its agenda is to deliver an anti-fracking message. I think that’s just the background to the moral dilemma, and the anti-fracking stance is accepted as a given. We have to assume that Steve is the “bad guy”, even while recognising that he’s a good guy, and ditto for Sue.
    And the doozy of a twist doesn’t actually negate the anti-fracking stance – that evidence was sub-judice, but certainly not irrelevant.
    But yes, wasn’t it neat how it made sense of the happenings …
    And there were a couple of lovely moments, such as the girl selling the juice in the gym foyer having a clear-eyed, happy moral stance about what you do and what you should get for it, and Yates talking about the horses he breeds, and how you can’t sell them for what they’re worth – both quite nice strands in the economic weave.

  2. Hi Karen.

    Hmnm, while we might agree on our general assessments, I think we differ on a few things going by your comments.

    Isn’t it overstating your case to relegate the anti-fracking agenda to “just a background to the moral dilemma”? The movie only turns into a morality play, as I term it, late in the piece – at the twist. Before that, fracking is very much to the fore as its central issue, and there’s no doubt where the filmmakers stand. Do you really think they weren’t motivated to get their message out there? No, I think the fracking issue is much more than wallpaper. But I do agree that the moral dilemma was also there, waiting to detonate (took a while!).

    To be honest, I suspect fracking started as the main game, and that that changed as the screenplay developed. That sense came across to me as I watched, and especially in thinking over the film afterwards. I was shocked, impressed and relieved by the twist, which gave the film a universality it was missing to that point. Looking back, it’s true that much of what came before was preparation for Steve’s life-changing moral test, though.

    You claim the twist doesn’t negate the anti-fracking stance, but don’t give any reasons to support your contention (you know I ain’t gonna cop that!). So, evidence s’il vous plait!

    I’d have thought you might have been similarly interested to know why I saw the twist as undermining the anti-fracking position of the film.

    Whether you’re interested or not, now that you’ve brought this up, I’ll elaborate. This means letting go of my spoiler consciousness (there ya go, readers of the Comments thread who haven’t seen the movie – you’ve been warned!).

    Simple, really. The Krasinski character presented a compelling personal case history that was central to his anti-fracking campaign. When his fraud was exposed, his case collapsed, surely? And by association the arguments he was putting forward during the movie. If you think not, why?


    Yes, when it was revealed that Dustin Noble (the Krasinski character – bit of an obvious name choice, eh!) had faked his story, and that the photograph of the dead cows was in a completely different location, it indeed undermined his personal credibility, causing his case to collapse. But the fact remained that the photograph was evidence belonging to an actual case that Global had settled, with a secrecy clause. So the body of evidence against fracking remained (and thus also the general anti-fracking stance of the film) – as Steve well knew – and this circumstance really hammered home the necessity of his taking a personal stance.
    I read somewhere that the filmmakers were originally planning to base the story around some other issue, but settled on fracking as it was topical. It could have been any environmental issue – strip mining, forestry, whatever – as a background to the main theme of a person’s choices in the face of criminal corporate tactics.

  4. Yeah, I did note that Dickensian name choice! Enjoy that sort of thing.

    OK, I think I’ve got to be a bit picky on word choice here. I stated in my review that the twist UNDERMINED the anti-fracking case, not – to use your word – negated it. I stand by that. Sure, the photograph was from a case that Global had settled in secrecy, but not much was made of that in the movie (and the twist had such dramatic impact that all else paled to relative insignificance in its aftermath, except Steve’s response). Anyway, my feeling is that audience members unaware of the fracking issue would have tended to have dismissed the general cred of the Krasinski character’s claims re its risks as soon as he was exposed as a Global plant.

    That twist also switched focus off fracking per se and on to criminally devious corporate behaviour. In the end, the real villain turned out to be Global and the sorts of corporate culture it represents.

    Aha – you did some research on the background to the film; I did not. Maybe this extra-textual research explains our difference in perception re the weighting of the cause vs the moral drama? Whatever, going purely by the film, which is all I can do in the absence of extra-text research, I don’t think the difference between the weightings is as stark as you suggest. Agree to disagree, I guess…


  5. “Anyway, my feeling is that audience members unaware of the fracking issue would have tended to have dismissed the general cred of the Krasinski character’s claims re its risks as soon as he was exposed as a Global plant.” That is definitely what the residents of the town were supposed to do – Global was banking on it! But I, and I hope other audience members, thought “I see what they did there, but it was still real evidence of the harmful effects of fracking.” My partner and I certainly had a discussion about it as we left the cinema; but I agree not much was made of the photographic evidence and the case documents with information blacked out, as the plot was then moving swiftly.

    You’re right about how that twist shifted the focus. It was really neat, and despite my surprise at how slick Dustin was, and my general unease about how he’d popped up out of nowhere, I certainly didn’t see it coming. A doozy indeed.

    My research didn’t inform my opinion about the theme. The film didn’t spend much time at all on the facts of fracking – just enough to establish for us that a good guy like Steve was doing dirty work. It was definitely a film about character, and values. Aha! I have just tracked down my “research” and embarrassingly it is from the Wikipedia article about the film. (And apparently they were going to use wind power as the issue.) I think I was trying to find out the name of the town. As you know I don’t usually do any research, but base my opinions on the film alone.


  6. Going around in circles here, I think. It seems obvious to me that the twist did undermine the anti-fracking message, but evidently you ain’t taking that point even one milliimetre – no way, no how. So, no room left for discussion on that, it seems.

    I think the background research you referred to is inadmissible as ‘evidence’ in support of your contention that fracking is merely a thematic backdrop to the main focus (character, values etc). I agree that in the final wash it is secondary; I just don’t go along with the extremity of your position.

    And while assigning a whack of screen time to covering the facts of fracking would have been boring in a drama like this, I think the filmmakers gave the con arguments as much of an airing as was reasonably possible. Hal Holbrook incorporated a succinct but potent risk assessment of the technology in his eloquent appeal for caution at Steve’s initial town hall promo meeting, and his oratory was of sufficient duration to have me squirming at its soapboxiness. And what about the Krasinski character’s graphic model farm demo in the classroom? I really think the filmmakers pushed the anti-fracking case as far as they could – too far for the fracking issue to be considered as incidental as you would have it. Still, I am probably not going to get any concession outta ya, so I spose I should quit here! You probably feel similarly. Two firm opinions + no budge = impasse.

    BTW, I wasn’t aware that you don’t usually do any research on movies in the course of reviewing. I sorta assumed you did.

    I’ve stated multiple times that my policy is to avoid other critical opinion and background research until after I’ve completed my reviews (although there are times when I make an exception for one reason or another, and of course, I check IMDb or similar for character and place names, plot details etc…got to, with my crap memory). Further, I’ve harped on ad nauseum about “pure readings” and the invalidity of bringing extra-textual baggage (as I see it) to a film. That’s been a point of disagreement between us on several occasions. I guess I assumed, by extension, that you didn’t share my no-research approach to reviewing. The trouble with assumptions… Glad to learn, in this case, that yet another of mine is incorrect.


  7. “It seems obvious to me that the twist did undermine the anti-fracking message, but evidently you ain’t taking that point even one milliimetre.” Dude. We’re not establishing eternal truths here, we’re trading opinions. I’m happy for you to stick with yours.

    Re research, I usually have IMDB open to check actors’ names, etc, and it is hard not to know things from pre-release publicity, but I make initial notes and draft a review based on the film alone. I definitely don’t read other reviews.

    In the case of Promised Land, I had already thought that the major theme was the moral dilemma rather than the topic of fracking itself, and the fact that they had considered using another issue just made sense of the fact that the fracking facts didn’t take centre stage (and I completely agree with you that it would have been hard to make an engaging film had they done so). Facts. Just thought I’d throw that word in one more time. (Sorry, writing too fast to edit for a more elegant sentence without so many repeats!)

    When I was reviewing Kon-Tiki, a friend sent me the link to the Smithsonian article, and I skimmed it before I finished my review – just enough to discover that the filmmakers had differed from the “truth” in ways I thought were significant, and I felt that was enough to make a couple of remarks about the nature of the dramatised/fictionalised documentary genre, but not to influence my general view of the film itself. It was similar with Haute Cuisine: the fact-checking I did after drafting my review tweaked my opinion only a little – sadly not for the better!

    Also, my feelings about Sleepwalk With Me – that it was thin on for story and character development – were supported by the peripheral information about its origins in standup and the This American Life link. That info was hard to avoid in the pre-release publicity, and made for a (to me, anyway) interesting rumination on the nature of these different media.

    Bringing extra-textual baggage is the post-modern mode, and like it or not, hard to avoid. You are very honourable about it and make a point of disclosing what you bring. But you can only disclose what you know you know, if you know what I mean.

    Going round in circles here, I know!


  8. But I don’t see any point in “trading opinions”, and I’m not happy sticking with mine – or with others sticking to theirs! I’m interested in meaningful discussion, where there’s a real to and fro, and a willingness to try to see another’s view. The benefit of that is that you stand a chance of learning something! That’s not meant as a slight. It’s just that I do get heartily sick of people – and I’m speaking generally – coming from “I’m right” rather than endeavouring to truly share experiences, and perhaps change one’s own view, even marginally, as a result. Logic and reasoning is my bag, not asserting my opinion as fact.

    BTW, ironic as your intention doubtless is, I recoil at being called “dude”, especially by a peer! Not at our age, puh-lease!

    “Post-modern mode”? Yetch and bah humbug to that is wot I say. Take your real point about it being hard to avoid outside influences when reviewing, though. Did I say hard? Make that impossible. None of us live in a cultural vacuum (to which your “you can only disclose what you know you know” comment refers). I don’t mean to be extreme about my “pure reading” thing. It’s really just an ideal, and I know it doesn’t translate smoothly to practice.

    No need for self-justification, either – I wasn’t attacking you! I was expressing genuine surprise, in light of the sorts of examples you’ve brought up (Promised Land, Kon-Tiki …and the one I was mostly thinking of, On The Road) that you have a similar attitude to mine re minimising pre-review research.

    Cheers babe

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