Movie Review: “Promised Land”

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Here’s the movie “Promised Land,” Matt Damon and Gus Van Sant’s new movie about a small town and fracking, could’ve been, and the one I was fearing:

Mustache-twirling fatcat villains stroll into town and con townspeople- all of them depicted as borderline-mentally handicapped rubes- into allowing gas drilling. They agree, the drilling starts, and before long everyone dies- including children and at least one dog- over manipulative music and closeup after closeup of contaminated glasses of water. Over the closing credits, we get a heartfelt plea to write a letter to our congressman, plus the phone number for Greenpeace.

That – pure preachiness, sanctimony and manipulation with no interest in either subtlety or making a good movie-  was the tack taken by just about every Hollywood star-backed “political” film of the Bush years. But it’s not what “Promised Land” is at all.

It’s actually a pleasant surprise- a well-directed, well-acted and nuanced look at a controversial political issue. It’s a shame the whole thing just about falls apart at the end.

“Promised Land” was directed by Gus Van Sant- whose “Milk” was probably my favorite film about politics in the last ten years- and stars Matt Damon and John Krasinski, and the two actors co-wrote the script. It takes a look at the controversy surrounding the natural gas extraction technology known as “fracking.”

The plot is basically a rehash of “The Music Man,” with Damon standing in for Professor Harold Hill and natural-gas riches representing the band instruments. Damon plays the star salesman for an energy conglomerate, sent to a small, struggling town in Western Pennsylvania to persuade both the citizens and local politicians to allow gas drilling. Aided by sidekick Frances McDormand, he runs into opposition from environmental activist John Krasinski and elderly schoolteacher Hal Holbrook. Meanwhile, both Damon and Krasinski attempt to romance local schoolteacher Rosemarie DeWitt.

A couple of things about “Promised Land” are refreshing. One, Van Sant clearly knows how to direct a movie and does it well. This feels like a real town, with real people in it who aren’t made to look like complete idiots. And two, it treats a nuanced issue with the nuance it deserves.

There’s a ton of natural gas in the ground, it’s a major part of the energy economy, and for long-depressed small towns it may be their only hope. On the other hand, the companies doing the drilling are less than reputable, and there exists a nontrivial chance of environmental catastrophe.

Both sides of the argument have some validity, and the film presents them both. Sure, you can tell which side the filmmakers are on and they ultimately show their cards. But this is no angry polemic. If that’s what you’re looking for, seek out Mark Ruffalo’s documentary “Gasland.”

Unfortunately, the whole thing falls apart in the third act, with a plot twist that’s completely egregious, and also has about five different holes in it. Most insultingly, we’re supposed to think the characters never did any research into one particular character, especially when we’ve already seen them Googling other characters.

It doesn’t completely ruin the film, but it’s still kind of a shame, since the effort got about 90 percent of the way there.

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