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
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.
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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