Fracking the Movie: Promised Land

12/27/2012 4:00 AM |

Promised Land
Directed by Gus Van Sant

It smacks of the 70s: get a bunch of Hollywood hotshots together, make a drama about a pressing environmental issue. The problem here isn’t pollution or nuclear power—it’s fracking, hydraulic fracturing, that deleterious process by which energy companies extract natural gas from beneath shale deposits. Working with Van Sant for the fourth time, Matt Damon stars as an energy-company exec visiting a small upstate New York town with his partner (Frances McDormand), trying to convince the locals to lease their land, positing the process as the potential savior of small-town America (which desperately needs a savior). It’s a bucolic farming community, a charming Anytown where little girls sell lemonade and the grocery store sells guns. (This seemed charming when I saw the movie earlier this month. It’s not so charming later in the month.) Above all, the town is honest, in contrast, we’ll see, to the mendacity of corporations.

Damon’s team meets resistance first from Hal Holbrook as the local science teacher, then John Krasinski as a doofy but charismatic environmental activist, preaching the first-hand horrors that fracking wreaks. (Krasinski and Damon cowrote the script—from a story by Dave Eggers!—making Krasinski The Ben Affleck.) Krasinski is Damon’s doppelganger: the latter is from Iowa; the former, Nebraska. They’re both friendly, folksy, and it’s Krasinski’s facility for winning over the townspeople—for winning—that drives Damon to unravel. That sort of psychological acuity in the script is what makes Promised Land more than a mere Issue Film—or rather, that makes it a great one. The film divides its issue into characters and engages them in conflict. But those characters are especially well-rounded and richly performed. “I’m not a bad guy,” Damon (the bad guy) keeps saying, and that’s true, even if he’s a fracker. There are no easy villains here; the bad guy is good, the good guy is bad. The filmmakers fashion a complex moral universe—for people, anyway. There’s still one obvious evil in the movie’s America: corporations. Or at least energy companies.

Opens December 28