Saturday, January 05, 2013

Promised Land

It is possible to like a film and to even be moved by one while also recognizing its flaws, and it’s helpful to keep that fact in mind while watching Promised Land. The new topical drama directed by Gus Van Sant from a script by Matt Damon and John Krasinski (working off a story by Dave Eggers) is a case of good intentions almost choking a film even though the subject matter and message are as topical as an MSNBC Sunday morning show. There was a more complicated film to be made here about a economically challenged community coming to grips with itself, but the makers of Promised Land have given in to the temptation to give us someone to root for.

The opening scene sets up the stakes. Steve Butler (Damon) is being considered for a promotion by the natural gas company he works for. Steve’s current job involves traveling to small farming towns and convincing the residents to sign leases that allow drilling on their land; the drilling is performed by the environmentally disruptive practice known as “fracking”. Steve has a reputation for signing up more people for less money than his peers. We’re meant to understand that he is motivated by his own disgust with the idealization of small town life, for Steve watched his own hometown fall apart after a plant closing. For him, a family farm is just something to do until economic disaster strikes. The nameless town where Steve and his partner Sue (Frances McDormand, excellent in a portrait of harried professionalism) land for their next mission is small enough to have a high school gym out of Hoosiers and teachers like Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook) who are working “for fun”. To say that Promised Land is “about” fracking may be an overstatement, it’s more about the omnipotence of large corporations. Just so there are no illusions about the forces that Steve represents, there’s a quick, nasty scene of negotiation between Steve and a town leader (Ken Strunk) skilled in the art of looking out for number one. Those, like Yates, with reservations about the environmental impact of fracking don’t seem to have a chance.

  Promised Land is very well acted; Damon brings layers of insecurity to Steve and the actors playing townspeople have a wonderful easiness combined with an instinct for self-protection. Titus Welliver, so familiar from TV drama, is a shopkeeper with an eye for Sue and Rosemarie DeWitt is very good as a teacher who isn’t sure she’s living in the right place. That’s why it’s so disappointing that the movie is broken up by declamatory speeches from Steve and other characters who share their stories and in most cases include a tacit appeal to be liked. An environmentalist (Krasinski) who follows Steve an Sue into town even belts out “Dancing in the Dark” on open-mic night at the local saloon. It’s too important to the film that we not judge Steve harshly; he keeps telling DeWitt’s character that “he’s not a bad guy.” Raising the question of whether or not Steve is a good guy is the mistake that Promised Land keeps making. I applaud Promised Land for its ambition and relevance, but surely the fate of the town is more important than one man’s self-esteem.

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