Film Reviews

McDormand and Damon are fracking good

Scorched Earth

Promised Land is a good story, well-told. And it knows how the world works.

Sneaking in under the wire to qualify for the Oscar nominations, one or two of which it might get, Promised Land–written by its stars, Matt Damon and John Krasinski–might just get patronized by Hollywood types watching its screener at the Polo Lounge. Its lazy publicity gives off an aromatic mixture of predictable Americana, but don’t you believe it: This is a B-plus movie beautifully acted–again credit Damon and Krasinski, with Frances McDormand–with a story by the great Dave Eggers.

Arriving in the (fictive) town of McKinley, PA, Steve Butler (Damon), and his partner McDormand, aim for what promises to be an easy deal: to lease the town’s surrounding farm land (at a lowball price, presumably) for the Global company’s $9 billion shale-drilling business, otherwise known as fracking (short for hydraulic fracturing). The process pumps water and dangerous chemicals miles deep to break up the shale, releasing both oil and natural gas. The problem is, as we all should know, it (often) makes the soil and underlying water table permanently toxic, withering crops and killing animals.

The money, however, is great. The farmers–not stupid, but ignorant–are dirt-poor and largely desperate. At a town meeting with Butler, most townspeople are on his side (as are we), with only one elder (the Hal Holbrook role, you may be assured) raising a knowledgeable voice.

Then an environmentalist (Krasinski) shows up, with photos of dead cattle at a fracked farm, to generally bad-mouth the corporate hackers. This complicates matters–for the situation and the film’s plot. Could it be, in a slow-burn reversal, that our Hero (Damon) is also a bit of a villain? Now the movie moves into high gear; there’s no straw dummy here. The movie is playing fair: fracking is no joke.

As the story deepens (different townspeople’s opinions articulate, surface), and we develop our own contrary notions about motives and lies, Damon’s self-confidence begins to erode. Personable Krasinski is making inroads on town opinions. And a vote on whether to accept the Global deal looms.

If you think you’ve seen this, or a variant, all before, you’re being senselessly sophisticated. Promised Land is smarter and better than that: It has got a stinger in its tail, this “little” movie, and you’re probably going to experience a bit of a moral chill at the end of this more-intricate-than-it–looks drama. In other words, this is not a pat little problem film–it’s richer and more troubling than that.

Let us stop to consider here that the fracking “issue” is an ongoing one in the U.S. As the movie says, this a story about people and their land, and not to be dismissed in a moment of severe sophistication propelled by Big Money. The ramifications will be real and life-long–should the farmers be fully controlled by a corporate entity?

What further distinguishes this honorable movie are the performances by the entire cast. Cliché characters don’t exist (except maybe for the Holbrook elder, and the actor is terrific). Rosemarie DeWitt makes her character (a potential Damon girlfriend) three-dimensional–a landowner of several generations, and an articulate one. McDormand, who seems never to give a bad performance, makes her fuzzily written character substantial and ironic (a bad good person?).

Tread lightly, good movie-goer: This is a good, well-done movie that can stick in your craw. At the year’s end, it classed up the lucrative movie scene–and deserves to be seen.