Thursday 21 July 2022

Movie Review: Promised Land (2012)

An environmental drama, Promised Land applies a pleasingly soft and reasonably balanced touch to the fracking controversy.

Rising star Steve Butler (Matt Damon) is dispatched by his employer Global Crosspower Solutions to secure gas exploration leases in a small Pennsylvania farming community. Steve has a stellar reputation for convincing landowners to sign quickly, and now he sets about ingratiating himself with the locals, assisted by his business partner Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand). 

But their progress stalls when local high school teacher Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook) raises health and environmental concerns about the fracking process, and convinces the residents to hold a community-wide vote. Soon environmental activist Dustin Noble (John Krasinski) arrives in town to harden opposition to Global's plans. Steve and Sue have to improvise new methods to advance their cause, while Steve and Dustin compete for the attention of local farm owner Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt).

With a deft structure, Promised Land tackles the clash between economic development, resource extraction, and environmental impacts. While the plot leans - slowly but surely - towards arguing for protecting a traditional way of life, the screenplay by co-stars Krasinski and Damon at least gives all viewpoints a fair shake. Placing Damon's likable persona on the side of fracking is a wise move to stimulate debate, and Krasinski provides a solid counterweight, the two men sparring on opposite sides of a heated topic.

Both points of view carry weight. Damon's Steve Butler is provided a rural upbringing and a vantage point on the importance of industry. He speaks with personal conviction when putting forward his case for the farmers to accept and enjoy the riches coming to them from gas exploration, because otherwise their way of life is coming to an end. Krasinki's Dustin Noble is the scrappy but resourceful underdog, making life difficult for Steve and Sue by simply displaying blown-up images of dead cows on his family farm. Both performances are steady without requiring stand-out moments. Holbrook, McDormand, and DeWitt could all have been provided with more to do.

Director Gus Van Sant adopts a patient approach, matching the restrained attitude with a small and scenic community where not much changes from one generation to the next. Moments of quirky humour lighten mood: Steve and Sue organize a community fair that does not go as planned, and the puzzle of small horses is a running source of amusement.

The battle for a community's soul ramps up to a couple of juicy-good late twists. However, the subsequent denouement is a clumsy let-down, a moment-of-triumph transformation landing with an unconvincing thud on the gym floor. Promised Land is attracted to the greener option, but is better when contemplating both sides of the fence.

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