Frick and Frack

2 Jan

promised-land-posterMatt Damon is a very likeable guy, and someone moviegoers can easily root for, whether he’s playing a genius from Southie, an amnesiac CIA assassin, or a corporate informant who makes a lot of stuff up.

But in the new film Promised Land, we know pretty early on that Damon is not the guy we want to see come out on top.

Here, he’s playing Steve Butler, who, with his partner Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand), tries to convince the residents of a small farming town hit hard by the tough economy to sell their land and allow an energy company to drill there. These two city folk arrive and quickly establish a local story and appearance, buying clothes from a town store (managed by the Man in Black himself, Titus Welliver) and emphasizing their Midwestern upbringing. It’s sketchy and inauthentic right off the bat.

Steve and Sue encounter resistance almost immediately, when, in a town meeting, a school teacher (Hal Holbrook, playing the wise old man once again) argues against the company’s use of “fracking” to get at the energy source, and brings to light that this kind of extraction would do bad things to the town’s land and the people (and livestock).

Promised LandThen Dustin Noble (John Krasinski), a grassroots environmental activist, shows up to further harass Steve and get the residents to vote against him.

The fact that Dustin is the more charismatic, more personable guy here, and that he speaks in terms that anyone can understand, gives him the clearer edge. (He makes a presentation in front of some school children that’s pretty persuasive.) And you’re going to listen to whatever Holbrook says too.

So, yeah. We know almost from the beginning that we don’t want Steve to succeed, and that — given the context here — he probably won’t. So there goes a lot of the dramatic suspense, and here comes a bit of predictability. (Oh, did I mention there’s a potential love interest?)

Somewhat tragically, the film also doesn’t light a fire under you or make you angry the way similar ones like Erin Brockovich or A Civil Action do.

Promised LandThat all said, for what it is, Promised Land is not a bad movie, per se. With the exception of one scene where Steve delivers a speech while standing in front of an American flag, Gus van Sant’s direction is casual and unobtrusive, and not heavy handed.

Boston boys Krasinski and Damon are engaging leads, and their screenplay (based on a story by Dave Eggers) nicely lays out the two sides of the fracking debate: the financial benefits for those involved (which in many situations can’t be ignored) and the effect this drilling has on the land.

Of course, the problem is that we know what side Damon and Krasinski are on: The film makes clear, as it should, that no amount of money is enough when pride, health, and the environment are on the line.

But for some people, it’s not that easy.

In the end, Promised Land comes off as a dramatized environmental brochure, one that illustrates the debate for those who are uninformed but never really puts into question which way you should lean.

I’m giving the film a B–.

Is Promised Land on your must-see movie list? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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