promised land

Art & Culture

There is an ingherent conflict in a film which wants to deal with serious issues, but feels the need to feature a film star to persuade people to come and see the film. The problem is that the story becomes about the star rather than the issue, and thus the movie ends up being neither one thing nor another. Which is a shame.

It starts off promisingly enough, as Matt Damon and Frances McDormand arrive in a small town, to do what they do for a living. They buy leases for a ginat energy company (Global), that is planning to look for natural gas and oil, under the soil of local farms in the wide open spaces of Middle America. Times are hard, farmers are poor, and here come these knights in armour offering sums of money in return for a signature. Where’s the downside?

The downside makes its first appearance via retired scientist Hal Holbrook, who starts offering some facts to balance out the promises made by Matt and Fran. Fracking – for this is what we are talking about – may not be the solution to the world’s problems. The process of plunging drills deep into the ground involves a lot of unpleasant and dangerous chemicals which in turn can produce devastating results.

A further obstacle pops up in the shape of John Krasinski as an environmental activist determined to stop the fracking in its tracking. He’s plausible, friendly, and woos the locals very effectively. He’s also making a move on the local school teacher (Rosemary deWitt) who Damon also likes. And the town is gearing up for a big vote on whether they are going to allow the fracking to go ahead.

The first hour of the film is enjoyable and intriguing. It seems as though there are going to be some morally complex questions to be dealt with, and the actors on screen are an appealing and attractive bunch. But then, the rot sets in. The film stars Matt Damon. You know, the clean cut decent guy who is (apparently) the most profitable star in Hollywood. The guy who doesn’t do celebrity bullshit, speaks his mind on good causes, and is not so good looking that we should hate him. He’s the Good Guy, right? (In fact, he keeps saying that himself in the film).

But there’s a Problem. He’s working on behalf of Big Energy. He’s doing the Wrong Thing by selling and buying leases. How is the film going to reconcile this apparent paradox – short of making him the bad guy, which isn’t going to happen? Well, there is an answer, though it’s not one I’m going to share with you, and it sucks. It destroys the whole film, makes it as sappy as the sappiest sub-Capra crap you can imagine.

Because the point of the film wasn’t supposed to be about whether or not Matt was a good guy, but about fracking, and once it becomes a story of his personal growth and development, it’s just another stupid Hollywood film. Maybe a handful of people who hadn’t heard of fracking will see the film, and think that maybe it’s not such a good idea, though I wouldn’t hold my breath. Otherwise it’s just a big fat cop out, and director Gus van sant should be ashamed of himself.