Promised Land

Promised LandAs message movies go, the anti-fracking Promised Land (opening December 28) is neither a firebrand nor a puppyish Oscar-chaser. It’s becalmed, downright mellow at times. Unlike other position-paper films like Traffic and Syriana, which packed so many characters and subplots they seemed more like agenda delivery systems than like drama, Promised Land is relatively underpopulated and simple. Steve Taylor (Matt Damon) is a hotshot sales rep from a massive natural-gas company. He swings into rural Pennsylvania, accompanied by senior rep Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand), to get the townspeople to sign off on drilling on their land. Steve waves lots of (potential) money around: these down-on-their-luck farmers need the cash injection. Things look good for Steve and Sue until an environmentalist, Dustin Noble (John Krasinski), wheels into town. Dustin brings stories of other farms, such as his own, that said yes to fracking and sealed their own doom.

Damon and Krasinski wrote the screenplay (based on a story Krasinski worked up with novelist Dave Eggers), and it’s consciously non-insulting. The rural people are never hung out to dry as naïve clods or rednecks; many of them, like local teacher Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt) and gun-shop owner Rob (Titus Welliver), speak with a quick, sardonic wit. We’re never made to feel that the farmers and homeowners need to be protected from their own stupidity by crusading liberals. Steve and Sue are damn good salespeople, making their offer sound like the only sensible thing to do. Some folks, like science teacher Frank (Hal Holbrook), aren’t so sure about that.

The movie is also careful to humanize Steve and Sue, who are not nefarious villains twirling their mustaches but people trying to close a sale. They lie, or at least misrepresent the truth, but so do most salespeople, especially those working for major corporations. I’m not excusing what real-life Steves and Sues do and the human cost of what they do; my point is that the movie isn’t structured to give us someone easy to hate, so there’s some complexity involved. The film allows surprisingly little time for anti-fracking chat; it’s more interested in the community and what’s at stake, and we meet and get to know a number of the people. Director Gus Van Sant and his cinematographer Linus Sandgren dwell on the beauty of the landscapes. We see for ourselves what might be ruined, feel for ourselves the generational ties to the soil. The filmmaking is smooth, unhurried, unassertive. The message isn’t crammed down our throats; it sneaks up on us.

Promised Land is good drama at a time when good drama is scarce at the movies (generally these days we look to TV for that). It’s rarely grim; it flows with the easy-going humor of smart people talking to each other, and that sets the movie’s rhythm, too. The tempo is very rural, laid-back. Steve’s crisis of conscience is established mostly wordlessly. He and Sue both find attractive, funny people to spend time with (when they’d only planned to be in and out of town in a few days). Damon and Krasinski get a lot of comic mileage out of their scenes together; Dustin Noble (the name is a bit much, and is probably meant to be) approaches activism as prankish performance art, like Jim from The Office needling Dwight. But if Steve has unexpected layers to him, so does Dustin. Something he says to Steve — “Do you have what it takes?” — reverberates darkly later on.

I came to Promised Land with a bit of a dutiful heavy step: oh, man, an earnest Hollywood-liberal drama. I’m a lefty myself, but as I’ve said before, I don’t enjoy feeling as if I were in a choir being preached to. I want to be told a good story, spend time with well-written and interesting characters, be surprised. Promised Land checks off all those boxes. It ends up saying nothing more radical than that natural gas may be a decent alternative to oil and coal, but that fracking for it can be a brutal and destructive way to go about getting it, and that short-term windfalls of cash won’t make up for ruining the soil that gives you what’s left of your livelihood. At its base it really only advocates for looking very closely at any offers made to you and anything given to you to sign, and also looking very closely at the people making the offers and handing you the papers, and the corporations behind the people.

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