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Shale Game

by Ann Morrow on January 10, 2013

Promised Land
Directed by Gus Van Sant


The dialogue is so spot-on in Promised Land—Hollywood’s dramatization of the fracking debate—that it’s no surprise that the story and first draft are by star writer Dave Eggers. And as delivered by Matt Damon as a natural-gas salesman, Francis McDormand as his sales partner, and John Krasinski as a folksy environmentalist, the sales pitches, for and against, are especially engaging for a complicated topic. And in the Pennsylvania farming community where Steve (Damon) and Sue (McDormand) are trying to convince farmers to sell their land rights, talking the talk can mean the difference between acquiring drilling rights to rich gas wells, or going back empty-handed to their employer, a multibillion-dollar gas company called Global.

Matt Damon in Promised Land

First stop for Steve and Sue is buying clothes to blend in with the rural town. At a “guns, gas and guitars” station, Sue is immediately spotted by the owner, Rob (Titus Welliver), as being a gas-company ringer. Steve, however, solidly built and wearing old boots, is taken for being one of them, which he is: He grew up on a farm, and his determination to get the townspeople to sell out for their own good has an edge of desperation to it. Sue’s pitch centers on how a huge infusion of money from Global, some of which will go to the school, will help the town’s children to become competitive in the job market. A motherly smooth talker, she is hard to resist since her own motivation for putting cash ahead of conscience is her teenage son.

Though the townspeople are not as naïve as expected, the sales partners line up leases with ease until they come up against a force of resistance in the form of Frank (Hal Holbrook), an elderly science teacher who holds sway at a town meeting. At the same meeting, Steve bungles his presentation due to a night of heavy drinking at the local tavern, where a feisty farmer named Alice (Rosemary DeWitt) diverted his attention. It gets worse with the arrival of Dustin (John Krasinski), a charismatic activist from an anti-fracking group. The competition between Steve and Dustin quickly turns bitter and personal, though Dustin is surprisingly hard to rattle and always seems one step ahead in terms of strategy. Dustin’s posters, showing dead cows on a fracked landscape, seem to rebuke Steve wherever he goes.

In this relevant and absorbing scenario, the pros and cons of fracking (actually, there is only one “pro,” and that is the vast amount of money the gas company is willing to spend) are debated, debunked, and deliberated as natural extensions of the personalities involved. The acting is uniformly excellent, with Krasinski definitively proving himself a leading man. And yet, Promised Land winds down as a very good movie instead of a great one.

What it lacks is passion, and this is most apparent in the long interlude with Steve and Frank (and if you think Mr. Mark Twain was cast for a reason, you’re right) that leads to a neat and clean conclusion—and if there’s one thing a story about fracking should not be, it’s neat and clean. But by that time, it’s noticeable that the script (co-written by Krasinski and Damon) was originally about a rivalry between corporate cutthroats, with the fracking element being added later.

Director Gus Van Sant brings the same measured tone as he did to Damon’s breakthrough hit, Good Will Hunting. The visual homage to rural farmland is affecting while the score by Danny Elfman amplifies the land’s sprawling beauty. Yet considering the stakes that are raised—as Steve admits, the gas company “controls every aspect of the outcome”—sincerity, however well expressed, just isn’t enough.