This is an anti-fracking movie.
To Promised Land’s detriment and perhaps even the detriment of their cause, there’s no subtlety in the way Matt Damon and John Krasinski present their very pointed views on this politically charged environmental topic.
Damon and Krasinski co-wrote the film, which is clearly a passion project, and also bring their star power to the impressive onscreen ensemble cast, but more focus on their storytelling abilities and a bit less lecture-style posturing about fracking itself could have gone a long way to make their case more convincing.
Damon plays Steve Butler, a cog in the machine at Global Crosspower Solutions sent out to dying small towns in the midwest to convince poor farmers and landowners of the (mostly monetary) advantage of letting the company come in to drill their grounds for natural gas. He’s not a greedy corporate fat cat and he does have a point, having personally experienced the death of a small town personally, but his reluctance – and thus, the audience’s – is felt almost immediately as he sets out on one last job before a major promotion.
And it’s all downhill from there as director Gus Van Sant trots out America’s Cutest Old Man, Hal Holbrook, as a local science teacher to list all the dangers of fracking at a town hall meeting. Butler is frustrated but can’t refute any of the points made, because, we suspect, neither can the filmmakers.
Butler mostly finds wide-eyed, naive and eager landowners more than willing to sign away their property for the prospect of getting rich fast. Having signed up they promptly begin to spend the money they don’t yet have on such frivolities as sports cars, further hammering home that you are being taken advantage of if you support fracking – and frankly, kinda dumb.
The film does get a nice jolt of excitement with the arrival of Krasinski as Dustin, a friendly, confident anti-fracking environmentalist and a showdown between him and the diametrically opposed Butler quickly escalates as the latter grows increasingly frustrated with how easily the former is able to relay his message.
The movie’s greatest asset is its talented and engaging cast, in particular Krasinski, who has had trouble finding success on the big screen but proves here that he has a real leading man’s charisma. Damon’s everyman quality serves his character’s purposes well as he plays the straight man opposite Krasinski’s more magnetic figure. Rosemarie DeWitt effortlessly flirts with both men as the dream girl who symbolizes the one upsmanship between them, while Frances McDormand is solid as Damon’s sales partner – though underused – while trying to evoke a working mom who just wants to do the job and go home to her family. The ubiquitous and chameleon-like Scoot McNairy also pops up deep into the movie as a cantankerous farmer who makes Butler’s job difficult.
Still, the cast is done a disservice by the heavy-handed fashion they are asked to relay their message, leaving little room for the actors to breathe life into their characters. They become little more than mouthpieces who, ultimately, all drive the same message home.
And then, a third-act twist comes out of nowhere. It’s meant to put the nail in the coffin of the fracking argument, but sadly, only leaves the audience feeling as duped and boxed-in as the characters onscreen.