By Chaz Lipp
Steve Butler (Damon) and his business partner Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand) travel from small town to small town, convincing farmers to lease their land to Global Crosspower Solutions. Their land is subsequently drilled for gas, with the promise of astronomical paydays for the owners. Butler is a true believer, convinced that his work for Global is essential for these struggling farming communities to thrive again. Thomason sees their mission as nothing more than a job, without a second thought about whether they are hurting or helping the people signing the contracts. Both of these Global agents see the townspeople as easily manipulated, all too willing to accept their pitch.
Things are off to a good start for the pair when they first roll into a rural Pennsylvania farm town. Enter Dustin Noble (Krasinski), an environmental activist working for a small non-profit called Athena. He proves to be a serious thorn in Global’s side as he goes door-to-door, delivers speeches (and karaoke) at the local tavern, and lectures school kids on the evils of fracking. Not helping matters is the town’s elder rabble-rouser, an aged high school science teacher named Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook) who poses questions about the environmental impact of fracking that Butler can’t answer. Yates admires Butler’s conviction, but feels he’s fighting for the wrong team. A divide begins to emerge amongst the people, with some seeing dollar signs but most siding with Noble.
Here’s what Damon and Krasinski should’ve done. Set the story sometime in the not-too-distant future, say a few decades or so. Concoct a fictitious energy-development process that may or may not cause environmental damage, something that could serve as a general parallel for similar contemporary practices. See, in its released form Promised Land plays as a semi-fantasy, populated by characters that have no inner life and are merely meant to stand as opposing positions in an unbalanced debate (that eventually implodes). The paranoia that surges in during the aforementioned third act twist might’ve been more believable if the filmmakers had created a shadowy, conspiratorial future world. The preachiness could’ve been diluted in the process as well by not tackling such a real, on-going controversy.
Promised Land was partially funded by Image Nation Abu Dhabi, a company based in the United Arab Emirates. Take that however you want, but it’s impossible to ignore the connection between the UAE, an oil-rich country, and a movie that turns into a shrill screed against mining for natural gas. Regardless of where you fall on the issue of fracking, this is one film that doesn’t shed any useful light one way or the other.