Not to belabor an obvious pun, but Promised Land is a great fracking movie. Directed by Gus Van Sant from a screenplay co-written by Matt Damon and his fellow lead — just like Good Will Hunting, I might point out — from a story by Dave Eggers, it tells an unsurprisingly poignant story about one rural community at a crossroads, and yet it still manages to pack a few twists that will throw just about everybody for a loop.
Steve Butler (Damon) and Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand) work for the multi-billion dollar Global Crosspower Solutions corporation, in the natural gas division. They get sent into communities where the company would like to expand their operations, sell contracts for mining rights, and get out. And evidently they’re very good at it, far outselling their nearest competitors and for lower prices. When they head into one town in rural Pennsylvania, it seems the same as many others. The social center is The one local bar, and there’s a general store where Rob (Titus Welliver) sells “Guns, Groceries, Guitars & Gas”.
They get some pushback from Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook) at a town hall meeting — held in the school gymnasium — and a group of like-minded citizens who call for a vote in a few weeks’ time. Instead of being a simple in-and-out, the pair are stuck in town for the duration. And then things get complicated when a charming environmental activist, Dustin Noble (John Krasinski), shows up and starts causing problems.
The script is smart enough not to info-dump too much — Frank is speaking as much to the audience as to the town hall when he urges people to “google that word: ‘fracking'” — but Dustin gives a biased but entertaining capsule description to a middle school class. For those who don’t know, hydraulic fracturing is a process of extracting natural gas deposits from shale by pumping a high-pressure mixture of water, sand, and largely unregulated and unknown chemicals into the rock strata to break them up and allow the gas to escape. In principle this is fine, but those chemicals and some of the gas itself can end up in local aquifers. This is explained in much more vivid detail in the documentary Gasland, better known as the “holy crap that guy just set his tap water on fire” movie.
The story is not without its flaws; I don’t think Damon and Krasinski will be up for best screenplay the way Damon and Affleck were. Steve is presented initially as more competent than he seems later, as if he’s never seen even token resistance before. And throwing in the proxy fight over an attractive young local (Rosemarie DeWitt) seems extraneous, though she does add some texture to the town’s sentiments.
It might be seen as a shortcoming for the film to be less than even-handed, but I’m inclined to say gas companies should make their own movie and hope it lands closer to Won’t Back Down than to Atlas Shrugged. Still, despite their anti-fracking bias, the filmmakers manage to raise an important point: these communities buy in because they’re poor, and they may well die out anyway. Fracking at least offers a gamble: money is coming in, and maybe your community won’t suffer a catastrophic spill. Maybe there will only be a little poison in the well. That people are even in a position that they have to make such trade-offs points to the fact that driving the gas companies away is not itself enough to save this way of life.
And, though it’s not one I’d particularly want for myself, it’s a life worth saving. Beyond the environmental questions of fracking, Promised Land is really concerned with with the way our modern way of doing business treats actual — not corporate — people. It’s crystallized nowhere more clearly than in one exchange: Steve asks Dustin, “We’re a nine billion dollar company; do you know what we’re capable of?” to which Dustin asks in turn, “Do you?” Indeed, do any of us know what we’re capable of when we lose sight of the impact of our decisions as we do our just-a-job?
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.