“Fracking” that is. If you haven’t heard of the term, it is short for a process called “hydraulic fracturing,” a drilling technique used to release petroleum and/or natural gas from below the Earth’s surface. It is a current hot-button political topic with supposed benefits (there is a wealth of gas under American soil that could lead us to energy independence), and supposed dangers (chemicals used in the process can taint ground water, harm nature and us humans and just be plain bad for the environment).
Promised Land is a film about fracking that decides to dodge-step around the real issues. Matt Damon plays Steve Butler, who works for a major gas company. He and his partner (Frances McDormand) are assigned to a small town, where they are to convince the locals to release their land for fracking to commence. The simple-minded townspeople are promised riches beyond their dreams, even though Butler knows that none of them will really see anything too significant.
Just when things seemed to be going their way, an environmental activist (John Krasinski, from NBC’s The Office) arrives in town and begins educating the town about the dangers that fracking poses to their community. To illustrate the effects, he goes into a school with a small model town, dumps bleach and other chemicals on it and lights it on fire, to represent what will occur if they allow Steve and his minions to frack in their town. This frackin’ guy.
But instead of lingering on these political issues, Promised Land slips into TV-movie-style melodrama. Steve meets a local girl, Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt, having a fine year) and falls for her. Then of course, the environmental guy swoops in on his action. We also meet several clichéd caricatures from this Podunk town including an old man (Hal Holbrook) who refuses to sell and a redneck (Lucas Black) who believes he is “partnering” with the oil company to become a millionaire.
The general gist of the film leans towards tired conventions, like that all big corporations are evil or that all small towns are full of ignoramuses. It suggests that these big companies are praying on these small towns specifically for their lack of education on such topics as the environment, or where $30,000 may sound like a lottery jackpot. It also shows the ruthless greed of corporate America and the incredible lengths that they will go to in order to make a profit.
None of which are new ideas. Promised Land may raise some awareness about what fracking is and why it may be dangerous, but it stops short of being important and instead tries to pose as if it is indifferent. It’s a missed opportunity – one way or the other – to truly enlighten audiences on such a divisive topic.
Run Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes, Rated R
Starring: Matt Damon, Frances McDormand, John Krasinski, Scoot McNairy, Rosemarie DeWitt, Hal Holbrook, Titus Welliver, Lucas Black
Screenplay by John Krasinski, Matt Damon based on a story by Dave Eggers
Directed by Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting, Milk, Finding Forrester)
Opens locally on Friday, Jan. 4, 2013 (check for show times).
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