Saturday, January 05, 2013

Promised Land / ** (R)

Steven Butler: Matt Damon
Sue Thomason: Frances McDormand
Dustin Nobel: John Krasinski
Alice: Rosemarie DeWitt
Rob: Titus Welliver
Gerry Richards: Ken Strunk
Paul Geary: Lucas Black
Frank Yates: Hal Holbrook

Focus Features presents a film directed by Gus Van Sant. Written by John Krasinski & Matt Damon and Dave Eggers. Running time: 106 min. Rated R (for language).

If you haven’t seen the trailers, you won’t know exactly what it is that Matt Damon’s character Steven Butler does from the opening scenes of his new film “Promised Land”. You will learn that he is a sort of salesman who closes three times as many deals as his fellow employees at half the rates to the company for which he works. He’s part of a two-person team, with the down-to-Earth Sue Thomason, which goes into farming communities and leases land from farmers for his company to use to extract natural gas from the shale beneath the ground. Steven believes what he does for these communities helps them survive hard economic times.

The process of extracting natural gas in this manner is called fracking. Up until just recently, I thought fracking was what people did on the television series “Battlestar Galactica” to make children. In reality, it is a practice that has existed for over fifty years in the natural gas industry. As pressures to pursue alternative energy sources have mounted over the past few years and the popularity of natural gas has increased, this practice has come under fire from environmental agencies. They claim that the mixing of dangerous chemicals with water used in the process combined with the process itself of saturating the soil with this mixture to apply pressure to the shale to release the natural gases puts the surface soil and water at risk for contamination.

Butler knows these instances are rare. “I’m not a bad guy,” he insists. He has personal experience with the fading rural farming communities in this country. He knows that without some sort of economical push to the farming community he is assigned, the town will eventually die. For the most part, the town’s people are willing to buy into his scheme. Most see a financial opportunity that even in the best of economical times they’d never see. Some even wish to exploit the gas company. There’s a keenly observant scene where the mayor tries to extort a little finder’s fee from the gas man. He’s excited and nervous until he’s slapped down by the experience behind Steven’s sales tactics.

There are a few, however, who see more than just money behind the natural gas deal. They see a grave threat to their way of life and their environment. A retirement-aged gentleman, played by the always-levelheaded Hal Holbrook, is more than he seems and derails Steven’s plans to push easy permission from the town for the drilling rights. Then the “environmental presence” shows up. Played with John Krasinski’s boyish charm and playfulness, Dustin Nobel throws a giant wrench into the works with a story about his family farm perishing due to a natural gas deal. Nothing that Steven throws up against Dustin’s golly gee tactics seems to work. This is where the movie started to loose me.

Suddenly this guy—who is supposed to the best in the game—looks like he’s playing the amateur hour to a goofball who can’t possibly be throwing anything at them that they haven’t seen before. Steven makes much about the fact that his company is a $9 billion dollar company, and yet for some reason when this one man show turns up they start spinning their wheels and don’t seem to have any resources to fall back on besides Steven’s inferior wit and Sue’s matter of fact attitude. Why aren’t they demanding information on this guy, or lawyers, or fixers from their company? In fact, Sue’s purpose seems to be regulated to showing the audience how they should feel about certain developments and providing a little bit of comic relief from a flirtation she has with a local. I’m not sure why she’s there.

Where is Steven’s ferocity? Where is his passion for what he claims to believe is the right thing for the town? He spends far too much time questioning his position, and not enough time fighting for it in a way that makes us believe this man is the character he’s been set up to be. It’s as if Damon and Krasinski with their screenplay are trying too hard to sell this guy as the hero. They want us to like him. He should think he’s a hero, but not the introspective thoughtful kind. He should have that gung ho, never say die spirit that everybody thinks is what makes a hero, so that at the end his epiphany might seem more profound.

The film is well directed by veteran filmmaker Gus Van Sant, who has directed Damon in a Damon co-written screenplay on two previous occasions, “Good Will Hunting” and “Gerry”. The project was intended to be Damon’s directorial debut, but scheduling conflicts required the production to bring in an outside director. Van Sant does a good job capturing the small town farming community, but perhaps he didn’t have the passion for the fracking message that Damon and Krasinski were trying to educate people on.

The performances are all spot on. Damon is a good hero. Possibly too good for this role. Perhaps Damon’s childhood friend Ben Affleck might’ve been a better choice, however, I doubt anybody would believe that Affleck grew up on a farm. Krasinski is perfect for the environmentalist, including certain against “type” aspects that I won’t reveal here. Frances McDormand is the rock steady presence she always is. Her knack for comedy helps lighten the mood a good deal. Even the smaller roles capture exactly what they should about a small town, right down to a small role played by Lucas Black as that over enthusiastic redneck that seems ever-present in any small town.

These attributes make the failure of the script that much more frustrating. It’s difficult to see such a well-made and well-acted film brought down by some ill-conceived notions at its conception stage. Some movies can be improved a little with some character adjustments and some minor structural fixes. “Promised Land” could’ve leapt into the category of greatness with a few changes, but instead it feels false. It serves as a good introduction into some of the controversy that has risen up around the practice of fracking, but dramatically the movie is fracking unsatisfying.  

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