At the Movies

Promised Land Directed by Gus Van Sant

(Ed’s Note: Contains vague plot spoilers)


In “Promised Land,” Matt Damon plays an up and coming employee of a natural gas company that’s in the process of entering into contracts with land owners to allow the company to drill for and extract gas from under their property. Their modus operandi is to arrive in a new location and quickly and quietly secure enough contracts to make the process viable before there’s any groundswell of opposition or any involvement from environmental groups who might not be so fond of the “fracking” gas extraction process.

I say “up and coming” as he seems primed for advancement, but he’s not a junior employee – the film starts with him being interviewed for an executive position. He’s popular within the company because he has a record of securing more contracts and promising less money in return than any other field worker.

The backstory we’re given is that he grew up in a small rural town himself, one that fell apart economically when the primary employer closed down. So he feels that he understands and connects with the small town folks that the company tends to target, those that are living on a hope and a prayer of good fortune to come, with few other options on the horizon.

When he and his partner, played by the excellent as ever Frances McDormand, arrive on site at their latest assigned community, expectations are high for a quick in and out operation. But they didn’t count on an elderly science teacher who is well read on the topic of fracking. The teacher is played by Hal Holbrook, who brings a quiet dignity and authority to what might have been a lighter weight role in the hands of a less accomplished or younger actor.

As the process slows, an environmental activist shows up, vague hints at romance are kindled for both protagonists, and things become far more complicated they had hoped for. But that’s the plot of the movie and I’ll try not to ruin it in its entirety – although this is a hard movie to critique without unveiling some of what happens later, even in somewhat veiled terms.

There’s a lot to like about this film, with a simple modesty to its scale and production, despite the A-list cast. It’s well acted by those mentioned, as well as John Krasinski and Rosemarie DeWitt in supporting roles, and others including Titus Welliver and Scoot McNairy (who’s had a busy year with “Argo” and “Killing them Softly”) in smaller but important performances. It looks good and the direction is as good as one might expect from Gus Van Sant (“Milk,” “Good Will Hunting,” “Drugstore Cowboy”).

All of which leads to my disappointment with how badly the film seems to fail. My problem is with the screenplay itself, co-written by Damon and Krasinski, or possibly Dave Egger’s story (it being hard to know where each idea came from).

There’s clearly more to the story than what I’ve described so far, which is basically just the setup, and various facts and assertions are uncovered about the company and its practices. For McDormand’s Sue, this is just a job – she’s not out to police anybody’s morals or intentions, she’s trying to support a son back home and she’s very good at what she does. Damon’s Steve, however, is a sharp and well-meaning guy – at least that’s how he’s played by Damon, who co-wrote the part, so presumably he had some clue as to what the character should be. “Steve’s not immune from making an occasional bad decision, but he’s clearly not an idiot and he thinks he’s helping people.”
But the screenplay seems to need him to be an idiot, or to have been completely out of touch with the world for the premise of the film to work. Perhaps he’s been signing up folks to contracts who live under a rock somewhere. It’s an idea that might have made sense if it had been set a few decades earlier, when workers on the road in rural communities might have been out of reach of major new sources, but not in an age of instant communication and in a film where Sue spends her evening skyping with her son. The problem being, of course, that fracking is an issue of today’s world.


Steve reacts to news of his company’s deceits as though his world is rocked, as though nothing like this has ever occurred to him or been brought to his attention before. It would work better if he was operating in a vacuum, or under that rock, or if he was portrayed as a well-meaning and efficient simpleton. But this is a character who has been leaning on multiple people earlier in the film, manipulating facts, and threatening them with statements like (from memory) “We’re a nine billion dollar company, do you know what we’re capable of?” He’s worldly when the plot needs him to be worldly and he’s naïve when the plot needs him to be naïve. And that destroyed the story for me – it simply doesn’t ring true or remain consistent within itself.


There’s quite a bit more to the story, which actually has a nice structure to it in some other respects, but that problem defeats it.


The purpose of the film seems to be to warn people of the tactics of companies like the one depicted. It doesn’t delve too far into fracking as a process, other than to provide vague implications of the dangers involved. In that sense, for a film about drilling and mining, it doesn’t get very far below the surface – but then it’s primarily a character study, albeit a flawed one.


For most of its running length it’s pleasant enough to watch, until the logic of the main character arc seems to fall apart, at which point it simply annoyed me. It’s possible that the goal was to tell a story of how many bad actions are undertaken by well-meaning individuals, hoodwinked by their own organizations but, as I’ve described, Steve seems too sharp and too clued in when necessary to make his character plausible when he seems to have been taken for a ride. It’s too fundamental of a flaw to make the film work as anything other than an example of quality acting by the rest of the cast – and I can’t recommend it despite having actors, a director, and even a topic I’d normally expect to appreciate.

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