Review by The Isolated Moviegoer:
The ethics of natural gas extraction through hydraulic fracturing, otherwise known as “fracking,” are given a poignant examination in Gus Van Sant’s Promised Land. Scripted by Matt Damon and John Krasinski, from a story by writer extraordinaire Dave Eggers, the film pits big business against struggling citizens in need of a boost, giving a relatable face to each side. Intelligently depicting both the means the former will undertake to close a deal and the range of responses their offer of financial salvation elicits in rural townsfolk, the issue’s pros and cons organically converge with only the occasional preachy moment.
Damon stars as Steve Butler, a Global Crosspower Solutions representative dispatched to tiny McKinley, Pennsylvania, to sell its residents on drilling as a means of economic recovery. Brimming with Eagle Scout charm and relatable Iowa farmland roots, Steve has a near spotless record of sealing contracts and is a top candidate for management. An ideal casting choice, Damon’s amiable nature makes him a convincing salesman, at once a trusted neighbor and corporate hero. The lengths he undertakes to achieve his ends, however, are downright nefarious, and in Promised Land’s depiction of his work both in the field and behind the scenes, a rich, complex portrait emerges.
Clad in flannel shirts and blue jeans purchased at a local hunting supply store, Steve and his fellow rep Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand) insert themselves into McKinley life at every opportunity. Whether making house calls or singing karaoke at the town bar, the two act like everyone’s best friends, and with the assurance of riches their presence brings, many are quick to unquestionably rejoice in their arrival. Not all are so hasty, however, and it’s through this opposition that Promised Land mines its most effective human drama. Led by the environmental cautions of high school science teacher Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook), the town agrees to put the measure to a vote, and in the intervening days, numerous complications arise for what initially appeared to be a slam dunk case.
During this crucial waiting period, Steve contends with Sue and his bosses breathing down his neck, ambiguous romantic encounters with elementary school teacher Alice (Rosemary DeWitt), and, most problematic, the sudden appearance of Dustin Noble (Krasinski), a conservationist who complicates all of the above. As these stressors pile up, Steve’s confidence waxes and wanes in concert with the ever-shifting local support, making for an impressive character study. Faced with opposition of this magnitude for the first time, Steve and his company respond to heartbreaking ends, placing him in a subtly thrilling situation in which he must determine the true proper course of action.
Such soul searching lends itself to several predictable rah-rah moments, and while multiple big points are delivered in the ultimate cliché setting of a microphone-aided speech before a crowd, the vast majority arise through quietly powerful one-on-one exchanges. Van Sant’s camera milks these scenes to full effect, occasionally using matching slow pans behind opposing characters’ heads to highlight the conflict’s dual nature. Accompanied by crisp aerial shots of lush fields and crumbling state roads, the setting and its people are respectfully presented, as is their critical situation. Such choices give Promised Land a textured, humane feel and, just as impressive, allow the provocative nature of its topic to ring true when it just as easily could have gone awry.
Rated R for language.
Promised Land is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.
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