The Unfulfilled Promise of ‘Promised Land’

Dec 30, 2012 by

Dot Earth - New York Times blog


>From left, Mr. Krasinski, the director Gus Van Sant and Mr. Damon on the set of “Promised Land,” written by Mr. Krasinski and Mr. Damon.Scott Green/Focus FeaturesFrom left, Mr. Krasinski, the director Gus Van Sant and Mr. Damon on the set of “Promised Land,” written by Mr. Krasinski and Mr. Damon.

I recently attended a Manhattan screening of “Promised Land,” a new feature film written by and starring Matt Damon and John Krasinski that aims to examine America’s natural gas drilling boom as a case study in “what happens when real people and real money collide,” as Krasinski explained in publicity materials.

The film opens Friday in New York City and Los Angeles and then expands to more theaters in early January. My sense is that it will not satisfy many people — either as a drama or a potential weapon (for either side) in the fight over hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the drilling method that has opened vast regions of the country underlain with gas-rich shale to exploitation. [Here’s A.O. Scott’s review ; the screenplay has been posted online by Focus Features if you want to read before you watch.]

An eager young industry deal closer, played by Damon, is dispatched to rural Pennsylvania to push presumably unwary village folk into leasing their farmland. But he runs into more than he expects — both from the community and his own company — and ends up sympathizing with a culture that values land, water and tradition more than money.

Matt Damon with Rosemarie DeWitt in a scene from "Promised Land."Scott Green/Focus FeaturesMatt Damon with Rosemarie DeWitt in a scene from “Promised Land.”

The plot has nearly all of the beats, but — regrettably — little of the heart and soul of the whimsical, near mystical 1983 film “Local Hero.” In the new film rural Pennsylvania is a stand-in for coastal Scotland and America’s shale gas bounty takes the place of North Sea oil.

The filmmakers, led by director Gus Van Sant, could have drawn on the real and often wrenching drama in such regions — the struggle between landowners and politicians eager for a way out of longstanding economic decline and those fearing contamination, industrial hazards or a loss of rural character. In my travels last spring and summer in Pennsylvania and New York communities situated over the gas-rich Marcellus shale, I saw plenty of this. Tom Wilber’s fine book on the gas rush in the Northeast, “Under the Surface,” probably came out too recently to provide source material for the filmmakers, but depicts the regional tensions in vivid detail. (I recommend that you read Wilber’s thoughtful, informed assessment of the film.)

While the film nicely conveys the textures of small-town life in gas regions, its main characters too often border on caricature. The industry duo moves from farmhouse to farmhouse, facing a sequence of lone, gullible property owners signing leases over a cup of coffee. That might have been commonplace in 2008 or so in Pennsylvania and other early frontiers in the gas boom, but the norm these days in gas country is savvy landowner associations that approach gas deals with skepticism and lawyers.

The plot at first seems crafted to provide no easy answers. An impassioned environmentalist (Krasinki’s character) is as unappealing as Damon and his equally duplicitous partner, played by Frances McDormand. While the industry team offers town officials manila envelopes stuffed with cash, the activist conducts an absurd classroom demonstration — drizzling a toy farm with toxic chemicals and then igniting it — to make his point.

Whether because of budget constraints or by design, the movie never shows drilling itself, leaving the specter of the industrial invasion of rural America to the imagination of the townsfolk and audience. One way or the other, this works to its dramatic advantage.

The central tension in the story surrounds a planned vote by the town that would ban or allow gas drilling. From Ohio through Pennsylvania and New York, there’s been a building push to fight gas drilling by taking control of energy extraction at the local level through home rule. Tom Wilber, again, is an ideal guide to how this is playing out (mostly in the courts).

Unfortunately, any prospects of a compelling denouement evaporate in the film’s final act, when the plot veers cartoonishly, doing for the gas industry what John Grisham has long done for big law firms.

Nuance leaves the theater.

In the end, because of such missteps, the tussle around the film in recent months between environmentalists and their allies and industry and its supporters ends up (sadly) more interesting than what appears on the screen.


For more background on how “Promised Land” came about (the initial scenario centered on wind turbine developers in upstate New York) and the views of its creators, watch the recent Times Talks discussion with Van Sant, Damon and Krasinski and read the recent Times feature on the film.

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