Promised Land | Movie review
Gus Van Sant gives the dangers of hydrofracking a mild treatment.
If you want to see an effective film about the dangers of hydrofracking—the controversial process by which natural gas is extracted from the ground—check out Josh Fox’s monumentally alarming Gasland. Or browse YouTube: Footage abounds of fracking-country residents lighting their tap water on fire.
Promised Land, from a script by Matt Damon and John Krasinski and an original story by Dave Eggers, appears to have been created with the impression that a more restrained approach is good enough. Damon stars as Steve, a company man who travels to small towns leasing residents’ gas-rich property. His latest heartland target seems like an easy mark: The place has “no environmental presence,” he notes to his partner (Frances McDormand) more than once. He convinces himself that what he does is a public service, because, damn it, these people are poor. They need the money. When a town supervisor questions whether fracking is safe, Steve offers him a corporate-sanctioned bribe.
Needless to say, his efforts soon meet resistance, both from a science teacher (Hal Holbrook) and a stranger (Krasinski) who arrives to offer the green POV. Directed by Gus Van Sant (who stepped in for an overcommitted Damon), Promised Land plays as work for hire; only passing cloud shots mark it as the auteur’s work. Isolated moments impress: Scenes of Steve and a schoolteacher (Rosemarie DeWitt) flirting at the bar or McDormand’s character bantering with a convenience-store owner have the specificity of peak John Sayles. But the film is way too earnest to inspire much anger. Some messages are better delivered with a flamethrower.