Tackle a big, topical, contemporary issue in a film and you’ll find that making a statement can sometimes come at the expense of telling a good story. There should never be a fine line between a movie and public service announcement. They are two distinct forms and we should know which is which. Thankfully Promised Land director Gus Van Sant and stars/co-writers Matt Damon and John Krasinski keep things balanced for the most part.
Based on a story by Dave Eggers, Damon plays Steve Butler, an affable, confident representative of a natural gas company. He arrives in a small Pennsylvania town and, after a stop at the local general store to pick up a regular guy wardrobe, he sets out to dazzle the cash-strapped residents with big money to let his company drill on their land. The problem is that, in case we don’t know by now, we surely learn from this movie that drilling for natural gas involves a controversial processing called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking as it is commonly known. While everyone in town needs the money, there are a significant number of residents, led by a wily high school science teacher played by Hal Holbrook, who are against the prospect of creating a devastating environmental disaster.
Butler is a pro through and through and ready to pull out all the stops. It has been said that politics really just boils down to a couple of people talking in a room and talking to people is what Steve does best. He seems up to any challenge but when Dustin Noble (Krasinski), a scruffy grassroots environmental activist who is twice as charming and affable as Steve arrives in town to organize the fight against the gas company, he finds himself on shaky ground for the first time in his career.
Yes, Promised Land threatens to get more than a little preachy now and then. Damon, Krasinski, Holbrook and Frances McDormand as Steve’s colleague Sue all get showy moments and monologues as the film examines the topic. Even though it threatens to go over the top, the film never gets heavy-handed.
One of the big challenges of this film involves asking the audience to get behind and root for the guy we all know is the enemy. It is a little hard to not recall Bill Forsyth’s wonderful, magical Local Hero, which involves a representative of a Texas oil giant trying to buy out the residents of coastal Scottish town and ending up charmed by them. Thanks to a nifty narrative curveball, we wind up seeing Steve Butler in a new light. Overall, Promised Land is a solid, understated film but, for all of its indie credibility and earthy-crunchy politics, the biggest surprise is its unfortunate Hollywood ending.
Promised Land is now playing at the Ritz East.
Author: David J. Greenberg
David J. Greenberg teaches screenwriting at University of the Arts and Arcadia University. He has been hired to write or doctor over 30 feature film screenplays. His film “The True Meaning of Cool” won an award from the American Film Institute. davidjgreenberg.com