January 13, 2013

Promised Land

Promised Land is the pet project of screenwriters Matt Damon and John Krasinski, both of whom star in the film, which was directed by Gus Van Sant. Damon plays Steve Butler, who works for a big natural gas conglomerate. His job is to travel to small towns and convince people to sell their land to his company for fracking (extracting natural gas from shale beneath the soil). Steve and his partner, Sue (Frances McDormand), encounter a nemesis: a guy from a small, grassroots environmental agency (Krasinski), who's trying to persuade people not to sell, because of the potentially detrimental environmental effects of this process.

In Promised Land, we see that age-old tension between the smug urbanites and the suspicious small-town farmers. In movies and pop culture in general, they appear to exist in altogether separate universes, encountering each other rarely, deliberately standoffish toward one another when they do. But the agenda of Promised Land has less to do with understanding the rift between these two ways of living (and the perceptions each has of the other), and more to do with a moral message about big business swooping in on pristine Mother Earth to usurp all its resources. Here, the writers achieve their intent by showing us the twinkling eyes of people who've been promised millions if they'll only sign away their farms.

Promised Land is a bit too conventional to be a totally convincing movie. The characters operate in fairly predictable ways, filling all the expected slots: there's the wise old science teacher (Hal Holbrook), who warns of the dangers of fracking; the love interest (Rosemary DeWitt), and the opportunistic local politician (Ken Strunk), who is totally fine with the possible destruction of his town as long as the price is right. These characters don't do much outside what we expect them to. It's all part of the formula for a movie like this, which does have important things to say, but tries to avoid saying them outright to avoid sounding too preachy.

We're meant to take our moral medicine vicariously, through the conversion of Matt Damon, whom we expect will go green, marry the single, 30-something teacher (DeWitt) who left the city to maintain the family farm, and raise chickens--and children. It's a little hard to buy. Perhaps this suggested scenario is wish fulfillment on the part of the screenwriters, who obviously want to strike up a national conversation about how we treat the earth on which we, you know, live, but were unable to conjure up anything beyond imitation-Frank Capra.

I think the message of Promised Land is important, but I don't think Promised Land is a great movie. It's not a bad movie, by any means. It's reasonably entertaining, and the cast is enjoyable even if the characters are obvious. (McDormand has some funny quips here and there; I wish she'd had a bigger part in the drama of the story, even though she was present throughout the film in a sort of here-but-not-here way). It's of course very tricky for Hollywood to ever do a serious message movie, because the message it's pitching may very well undermine the values of Hollywood itself. Presumably, Matt Damon's and John Krasinski's values are outside Hollywood's, to a point. They have worthy intentions and perhaps their movie will elevate the discussion of our obsession with money and riches--often to the detriment of our backyards, our water, our animals, and ourselves. It would be nice if movies could be both socially conscious and inventive, but that may be asking too much.

With Scott McNairy, Titus Welliver, and Terry Kinney. 106 min. ½

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