Graceful "Promised Land" Too Slight To Make Impact

Fracking, a controversial method by which natural gas is collected, is at the heart of “Promised Land,” a mostly agreeable drama directed by Gus Van Sant and written by its stars, Matt Damon and John Krasinski. The film is a sharp entry into the “David and Goliath” genre – see “The Insider” and “Erin Brockovich” – in which the hero is ordinarily a commoner standing up to the powerful, fighting injustice. But Damon and Krasinski have cleverly reversed the formula, making the antagonist the protagonist and vice versa. Damon plays Steve Butler, an amiable natural gas sales rep trying to convince the citizens of a small town that fracking will bring them millions, while Krasinski is Dustin Noble, a question mark of an environmentalist – it’s hard to tell if he’s genuine or just plain smug. While the film cruises along nicely for much of its running time, making some effort to be even-handed, its finale is such a complete narrative belly flop that your mind might wander to one of the film’s financiers.

The picture was in part bankrolled by the royal family of the United Arab Emirates, a nation that arguably has significant interest in seeing fracking end in the United States – and not for environmental reasons. Obviously, the more energy-independent the U.S. becomes, the less of a need it has for foreign oil, and while “Promised Land” doesn’t comment on international relations, the heavy-handed climax will be something of a field day for cynics.

The monetary benefits of fracking are very real. The procedure allows access to natural gas trapped far beneath the earth’s surface, gases that might otherwise be inaccessible. Alternatively, the process by which pressurized water and chemical additives are used to fracture deep-seated layers of rock are thought to contaminate air and water and have lasting negative effects on humans and wildlife. The first two acts of the film fairly portray both sides of the issue, treating all of its characters like real people rather than nature-friendly saints or big-business sinners.

The story begins with Butler joining a co-worker, Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand, “Fargo”), in rural Pennsylvania and the two immediately go out of their way to fit in with the townsfolk. They shop for flannel shirts, hit up the local dive bar for some karaoke, and go door to door with the friendliest of dispositions. It’s clearly an act, but Butler is as authentic in his own way as some of the locals. Along the way, Butler meets a local school teacher, Alice (Rosemarie Dewitt, “Rachel Getting Married”), and the two strike up a friendship that grounds the weightier material that follows. Hal Holbrook plays a cranky, old science teacher – the town’s anti-fracking voice – while Lucas Black (“The Fast And The Furious: Tokyo Drift”) and Scoot McNairy (“Argo”) support as working stiffs with very different opinions of Butler’s proposal. Rounding out the main players, Titus Welliver (“The Town”) has a nice turn as a shop owner who becomes fond of Sue.

Van Sant’s direction isn’t nearly as flashy as it was in 2009’s “Milk,” but he provides the right amount of visual propulsion to keep the story moving along. The writing is strong and convincing until the aforementioned denouement that will likely leave many viewers ice cold. Damon and Krasinski throw away much well earned goodwill with a predictable yet unbelievable change of heart on the part of a lead, stripping the film of its beautifully painted shades of gray. Instead of something more open-ended, viewers are given an overly simplistic explanation of a hotly debated issue, an argument that’s poorly constructed with but a shred or two evidence. But despite significant shortcomings, much of “Promised Land” is supremely competent and it’s one of the better character studies of 2012. It’s as easy to like as it is to criticize, making it a terrific conversation piece, if nothing else.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: December 28, 2012 (Limited)
Studio: Focus Features
Director: Gus Van Sant
Screenwriter: John Krasinski, Matt Damon
Starring: Matt Damon, John Krasinski, Frances McDormand, Rosemarie DeWitt, Scoot McNairy, Titus Welliver, Hal Holbrook
MPAA Rating: R (for language)