“Promised Land,” the new environmental drama from eco-buddies Matt Damon and John Krasinski, tries really hard to be an important film – and that is precisely why it fails.
By Noah Gittell
“Promised Land,” the new environmental drama from eco-buddies Matt Damon and John Krasinski, tries really hard to be an important film – and that is precisely why it fails. Its only purpose is to educate the public about the environmental dangers of natural gas extraction, also known as fracking. But in “message” movies, the message must emerge naturally from the characters and plot, instead of the other way around. “Promised Land” is populated with hastily drawn caricatures and one ludicrous third-act plot twist, constantly reminding us that the film is more statement than story.
Here is what it gets right: For about half of its running time, the film is honest about the hard environmental decisions our society faces. Can we reject the lure of the quick buck to protect our environment for future generations? It’s the right question, but the film doesn’t provide an answer. Instead, it takes the easy way out – exaggerating the evil of the natural gas industry to serve a narrative purpose, and neither the film nor the anti-fracking movement are any better for it.
“Promised Land” is set in rural Pennsylvania, which in real life is ripe for fracking and is the setting of a major political battle over its future. Matt Damon plays Steve Butler, a superstar natural gas salesman, who uses his small-town background to convince farmers hit hard by the failing economy to sign over their land for fracking. It’s a lucrative gig, and Butler and his partner (Frances McDormand) are good at it; these farmers are desperate to save their homes and provide for their families, and Butler throws around numbers big enough to silence any worries about the impact fracking may have on their land.
Damon’s nuanced performance is the best part of the film. In the hands of a lesser actor, his character would seem simplistic, but Damon consistently finds the unusual angles. The rest of the cast doesn’t fare as well. The supporting characters – the town folk – exist merely as plot devices used to reflect Butler’s changing opinions about his work. The elderly science teacher rouses the town in opposition to Butler’s presence – and then disappears for much of the film. Rosemarie DeWitt, always a welcome presence, shows up as a cute local who drives a personal wedge between Butler and his professional adversary, a charming environmentalist with the far-too-perfect name of Dustin Noble (John Krasinski).
The simplicity of these characters, however, is more than a narrative problem – it also dampens the movie’s message. The townspeople are portrayed as passive and desperate, and so their destinies are completely dependent on Butler’s moral whims. Yes, of course, we are required to be emotionally moved when he has his inevitable moral epiphany about the nature of his work. But if the filmmakers sought to rouse people to the anti-fracking cause, they would have been better off empowering those characters who would be most impacted by it.
“Promised Land” gets worse as it goes along, and it saves its biggest mistake for last. The first hour presents a fairly balanced look at the issue. Our sympathies are properly tested when Noble arrives on the scene; we are won over by his sunny disposition and altruistic motives, especially when compared to Butler’s ugly desperation (it is a refreshing to see a star like Damon be so unlikeable in a role). But all pretense of balance is jettisoned by a third-act twist that favors the conventions of commercial filmmaking over the nuance that the story requires. I won’t spoil it here, but by the end of the film, we see the natural gas industry as not only greedy but also conspiratorially evil, on a par with a lesser Bond villain.
Is the industry capable of the twisted deeds with which “Promised Land” charges them? Possibly. But why portray them as evil when you could simply show them to be destructive? Wouldn’t that be enough? At times, “Promised Land” feels like a political argument with someone who, when confronted with an opposing viewpoint, resorts to sophistry and unrelated attacks. If they really trusted their argument, they would have stuck to the facts.
My Rating: Put it on Your Queue