Steve Butler (Matt Damon), fracker extraordinaire for a standard black-hearted organization, is interviewing for a new position within the company and explaining to the interviewee why he excels at his position, at strolling into small towns and convincing small farm owners to lease over their land for lots and lots of cold hard cash so he and his cohorts can poke and prod the land to get the natural gas. He explains he grew up in small town Iowa. He knows what it means to be part of these communities and these communities are dying on account of this economy and this is their only way to survive. This betrays the true intent of Promised Land.
Let’s not kid ourselves, the screenplay as authored by co-stars Damon and John Krasinski is a straight-up BB shot across the bow of hydraulic fracking, so regimentally manipulative in its machinations you can practically see Robert McKee, coffee mug in hand, bellowing and cursing at whatever hooligans conjured up this flaccid slop. There is hardly a single line of dialogue in this film that is not explicitly about the subject matter. Now, as strange as it may sound, this does not necessarily have to be a problem. This can, in fact, be utilized as a strength. The film I kept returning to in my mind as Promised Land and its plethora of well-placed American flags unfurled on the screen before me was John Sayles’ 2002 Sunshine State.
That was a film set in two racially, economically divided towns in Florida with commercial property development subbing in for fracking. Sounds laborious, no? But Sayles, a delicate, skilled writer, peeled back layer after layer to eventually show the film’s real intent was to present a collection of disparate characters whose various dreams became weighed down, broken and scattered by the issues at the core of the community. This is what Promised Land seeks to do – to use fracking as a jumping off point to explore what it means to be Small Town U.S.A. in our current day climate.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the intent all along was to thwack fracking’s fingers with a ruler. Either way, it feels as if we are watching the battle scenes from a war movie on a distant bluff. There are people down there and the writers and director are moving them around to achieve the desired effect but we up here do not feel a part of it. Someone will “win” and someone will “lose” – and this is the film’s language, “win” and “lose”, used again and again – and then when it’s all over the projector will stop and the teacher will draw the shades and ask “Okay, class, what did we all LEARN?”
The film’s sole saving grace is its impressive stable of actors, most of whom give better than they get from the script. Damon demonstrates a true crisis of conscience in his expressions and the way he holds back and withdraws at particular moments even if his own plotting fails the overall production. John Krasinski, the heroic environmentalist whose motives may not be entirely pure, talks exclusively in slogans but brilliantly evokes a character not unlike those people in downtown Chicago armed with clipboards and harassing you and trying to give you high-fives in the name of the EPA. Rosemarie DeWitt, underused and generally poorly used when she is used, still makes us take notice by brilliantly evoking a character not unlike Julia of Chuck Klosterman’s Downtown Owl, a big city woman whose career path has brought her here. Even Hal Holbrook, called upon to portray the wise old soul who may live in the land of PBR and pickup trucks but still likes a nice bottle of wine, somehow projects an aura of dignity even if his character is only around to lecture us like the science teacher he is.
The best character, however, is the character that seems to spend most of the time standing in the wings. This would be Sue, Steve’s cohort, but played by Academy Award winner Frances McDormand ever so slyly as the sort of person who always knows the next play the team is going to run even if she is content not to do anything about it. You can sense that she senses Steve’s emotional crisis coming from a country mile away because she does not really lecture him or even get all that upset with him because, well, what’s it to her?
He will do what he will do. So will she. For her, it’s just, as she says, “a job.” And when it ends, win or lose, she will move on to the next because in this economy, that’s all we have, right? Whatever job we can get to do whatever we need to do to keep ourselves and our families afloat. She carries the whole message of the movie with her and hardly anyone notices.