Promised bland

OUT NOW! Gus van Sant's PROMISED LAND attempts humanise the highly-charged issue of fracking, but the result is dangerously close to dull.

Seriously? Films on the environment are generally made on the back of complicated issues, but these don’t always benefit from an approach that prioritises the gentle human factor over taking a more polemic run at the methods, procedures and consequences involved.

Gus van Sant’s Promised Land has merits, but these do not include providing an overview of what precisely is involved in the fracking process, choosing to concentrate on a ‘bad business’ exploitation angle as former farming boy-turned-corporate stooge Steve (Damon) travels to a recession-hit rural community to persuade the locals to sell up land for fracking. He and partner Sue (McDormand) go door-to-door with the same old lines: honest but lackluster believers in their product, backed by the kind of cash flow that could help the community recover. Occasionally he turns up the heat – all the while eyeing up both the possibility of promotion and a local school-teacher who could, he clearly hopes, put an end to lonely hotel nights. It’s up to itinerant environmentalist Dustin (Krasinski, who co-wrote the screenplay with Damon) to get out the pictures of dead cows and deserted fields that frighten the small-town homesteaders into activism.

Damon originally wanted to direct himself. Maybe he would have brought more edge to an issue that gets bogged down in too many shades of grey. His performance of an indeterminate buddy-type guy discovering decency suits him, as it has before. But in this case it leads mainly to the creation of so many double standards that it takes a robust narrative twist to bring things to a (not altogether satisfactory) conclusion, leaving him with the girl and the moral high ground and reminding us all that this is, after all, Hollywood.

Promised Land | Directed by Gus van Sant (USA 2012), with Matt Damon, John Krasinski, Frances McDormand. Starts June 13. 

Originally published in Exberliner issue #117, June 2013