Our 2013 movie reviews kick off with the the superficial and long-winded Promised Land.
A central topic in the 2012 Presidential election focused on energy independence. Both candidates spoke about its necessity, tossing buzz words into the air like clay pigeons. Yet, the one word both treaded lightly upon was 'fracking,' the process of mining natural gas from shale deep underground. The process is potentially dangerous, having been linked to earthquakes in New York state and poisoning water supplies elsewhere. The movie Promised Land seeks to plant its flag decidedly against fracking by pitting the people of a small town against the powers of a multi-national corporation called Global. Written by stars Matt Damon (Dogma) and John Krasinski (Leatherheads), the film features a thoroughly unlikable team of gas company pitchpeople in Steve Butler (Damon) and the roughly-hewn Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand, Fargo) as they attempt to sign drilling leases with the various townspeople. They've dealt with people like this before, and have all the moves laid out to suppress any negative press. When a local politician threatens to fight them, Butler dresses him down with threats and cash. More importantly, they promise the landowners only a fraction of what the land will actually supply, while at the same time guaranteeing improvements in schools and a general end to their financial woes.
But Butler isn't the bad guy, or so he claims; his advances towards a school teacher (Rosemarie DeWitt, The Watch) at the local bar is just part of his larger plan to win the townspeople over in a couple of days, sign those leases, and get out. However, the local science teacher (Hal Holbrook, Lincoln) doesn't buy it, and a town hall meeting designed to win support results in a crushing defeat for Steve and Sue. The entrance of the environmental rights advocate Dustin Noble (Krasinski) throws another wrench into things as support begins to coalesce around him. Butler and Thomason must rally their troops, or lose the fight to Noble and the town in general. Or will they? I'll get to the surprising twist later.
I can't argue that fracking is both a gold mine waiting to be unleashed and an environmental disaster if it's not done right. I don't think Damon or Kasinski had a plan to become preachy about its dangers; but Land only scratches the surface of the debate, leaving us with scattered facts and emotional testimonies instead of a connected narrative. There are so many false endings to this film that pile up like cordwood, soon becoming greater in number than we have fingers to count them. Each of these would have been far more effective had they been employed over the predictable one we got. Of course Damon will have a pang of consciousness; of course he will be fired while gaining the adoration of the girl next door. Do we really need those and a goodbye scene between he and McDormand that feels rushed and unsatisfying? Damon and DeWitt never seem to strike an emotional chord with each other, relegating her as an object to be courted by Butler and Noble. DeWitt has the ability to make the leap from comedy to drama, but she needs better situations to show off her abilities, as does Kasinski whose emotions cast surprising results. Credit Director Gus Van Sant (Goodwill Hunting) for using the rolling landscapes effectively; but his actors just seem to sit around most of the time, content to sputter their lines without too much feeling.
Promised Land had the potential to rise above its leftist cornerstones to deliver a stirring message about a town rising up to say no. It's just too bad that we see the ending so far in advance. Even the surprise twist near film's end merely serves as the beginning of that dull, downward slope. We know exactly what role Butler will take after that twist unleashed, leaving us 30 minutes of an ending that doesn't need to happen. I think Land could have benefited from an Arbitrage-like ending, leaving the audience to debate what path Butler might have taken at the mic, rather than laying out the pieces for us. When one also considers that it was partially funded by oil baron Image Nation Abu Dhabi, Land loses even more luster. In the end, we're left with a nice movie about nice people that only scratches the surface of the fracking debate; if you're looking for something a little deeper or even a well-acted drama, this film isn't the one. Promised Land is rated R for language and mature themes, and has a runtime of 110 minutes.
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