Driller Without A Cause
Before my screening of Promised Land, a young man stood in front of the theater and told us about fracking, the precarious drilling beneath farmland for natural gas and subsequent contentious subject matter of the film. He ended by saying that environmental movements have already stopped fracking in a Colorado town and hopes there are more to come, seemingly foreshadowing the entire film’s goal. To call this film a straight PSA would be to oversimplify and undercut much of its down to earth integrity. But its message is honest, if not brutally clear.
Matt Damon does a similar thing to a group of people from a small Pennsylvania town as Steve Butler, a recently promoted corporate suit from Global Crosspower Solutions. He however occupies the opposing viewpoint, sent in from the big city to collect leasing deals for drilling rights from the small farms littered across the valley. But unlike open moviegoers, this rural town isn’t so eager to open up their land, even if it means millions of dollars in their pocket. Confident with his newly acquired country flannels, Steve has his brazened lecturing humbled by Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook), an old science teacher and former engineer wary of Steve’s black and white proposal. This won’t be as easy as Steve thinks.
Tagging along with Steve is Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand), a single mother that drives their door-to-door pitches in a stick-shift SUV. It’s all about selling an image to these commoners, sharing a callused hand sensibility to promote a false trust and mutual understanding. His philandering lands him pulling duties at the local bar, slurping shots trying to woo a teacher Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt), who lives alone on a secluded farm. She provides his bottom-line mentality a natural opponent, an ambiguity to a man that proclaimed to residents that “there is no neutral position.”
Damon, who wrote the script with John Krasisnki, originally was going to direct, but time constraints forced him to pass directorial duties onto Gus Van Sant, collaborating again and reunifying the Good Will Hunting team. Van Sant likes the aerial camera here, capturing the land’s geography from above, hovering over the geometric roads and fields. In its one-dimensional plane, the land is vast, the money ripe. But satellite imagery doesn’t capture the subtle rolling hills, the rich community, the inherited family history.
Steve understands this, which makes him a perplexing character. He was born and raised in Iowa, foreclosed after a similar process took place, devastated to leave his heirloom behind. These are Steve’s people, and so his desire to aid them is both a corporate ploy and a heartfelt intent to get them out of their financial burdens, to send their kids to college. These people are changing he barks to Sue, a woman able to separate head and heart, personal job from public interest. McDormand injects early life but slowly molds into a flat character, one who feels like could be tilled with a more intimate Fargo-like lens.
The tide swiftly recedes from Steve’s direction when a mysterious environmentalist (Krasinski) pulls into town, swiftly garnering favor from the locals. His makeshift fracking awareness signs defiantly mock Steve and Sue, and their campaign becomes tarnished with visual evidence, in roadside reminders and classroom demonstrations. Their interaction is testy but pokes holes in Steve’s ostensibly strong corporate reputation, degrading his folksy stature into big-city fraud.
The moral conundrums get jolted with a late plot twist, but still provide ethical questions that aren’t necessarily given much room to expose themselves. Images of diseased, dead cows from contaminated water propagate back roads without much question. Its most authentic scenes come during candid, cut-the-crap pitches, in particular, between Damon and Scoot McNairy as a dedicated farmer. He’s tired of the foreign-oil dependent talking points and isn’t ready to handover his paternal inheritance. When do salesmen see the flaws in their method?
Sue, a veteran, apparently has grown immune to this internal problem, but Steve, fragmented from his urban quarters and campy beginnings has a split conscience. I won’t spoil the ending, but Promised Land has an identifiable trajectory in a film that targets the ambivalent nature of its residents. Strong and familiar, like Rosemarie DeWitt’s string of thirtysomething characters, but lacking complete conviction, Promised Land opens the floor for questions, and answers as much as it can.