By Don Simpson | January 5, 2013
Director: Gus Van Sant
Writers: John Krasinski (screenplay), Matt Damon (screenplay), Dave Eggers (story)
Starring: Matt Damon, Frances McDormand, Rosemarie DeWitt, John Krasinski, Hal Holbrook, Terry Kinney, Scoot McNairy, Titus Welliver, Joe Coyle, Dorothy Silver, Tim Guinee, Sara Lindsey, Ken Strunk, Karen Baum, Gerri Bumbaugh, Johnny Cicco, Erin Baldwin, Lucas Black, Kristin Slaysman
The talk of fracking in Gus Van Sant’s Promised Land is much different than the futuristic expletive used in Battlestar Galactica. This fracking is a colloquial term used for hydraulic fracturing. An oft-debated technique used for the extraction of shale gas, the main question regarding fracking centers around whether the economic return is worth the environmental risk.
Van Sant’s narrative pits two representatives of a seemingly all-powerful natural gas corporation against a podunk environmentalist. Each side tries their darndest to ingratiate themselves within an economically poor, agricultural community in Pennsylvania. The two representatives from the natural gas company — Steve (Matt Damon) and Sue (Frances McDormand) — even go as far as buying country folk disguises from the local Guns, Groceries, Guitars and Gas shop in the hopes to gain access to the hundred of millions of dollars worth of shale gas that is presumably stored deep beneath the idyllic rolling hills of this small town. Dustin (John Krasinski) takes the noble environmental stance in opposition to their dastardly capitalistic scheme, adopting the role of a vengeful victim of a fracking disaster.
Promised Land takes on the polarizing debate in the guise of being somewhat fair and balanced, lending it a relatively apolitical air. (It is not until the final act that the film’s true politics are revealed.) Both parties approach the debate as if they have already swallowed their side’s Kool Aid and there is no convincing them of the fallacies in their claims. Steve repeatedly claims that he is “not a bad guy,” but all parties involved seem utterly convinced that they represent the “good guy” and their opposition is the “bad guy.” The manly men who drive around in large trucks, donning flannel shirts and baseball caps see right through both sides of the argument. However, they do not seem to mind the courting process (which is paralleled by Steve and Dustin courting the same woman); in fact, they enjoy toying with the out-of-towners with a technique called “absolute madness.” In the end, it is not any singular “truth” from any debate that sways the opinions of the locals; they are won over either by the allure of quick and easy “fuck you cash” or by the unwavering pride of the agricultural way of life and the continuance of their family trade. Quite simply, they perceive their land by its monetary value or as a family heirloom; and for the latter, their interest in the environment is piqued merely by their desire to continue to utilize their land for agricultural purposes.
Van Sant’s traditional narrative approach utilized in Promised Land is reminiscent to his other mainstream films, Good Will Hunting (1997) and Finding Forrester (2000). (Even the film’s poster specifically references Good Will Hunting.) This is not necessarily a bad thing, but I definitely prefer his more adventurous cinematic efforts. That said, the casting and performances are quite inspired. Most notably, Matt Damon’s boy-next-door babyface plays quite well with Steve’s innocent Midwestern naivete and Hal Holbrook is pitch-perfect as Frank, the well-educated high school science teacher who begins to rally the town against fracking.