Israel? Nah, rural USA. ‘Promised Land’ (2012).

20 Apr

Promised Land posterWith such a blatant reference to the Middle-East in its title, one could be forgiven for presuming Promised Land is about Israel’s turbulent history, a commentary about unwanted American presence there, a documentary about Islam, or even about oil-drilling… But no! The last one is sort of close; this is a movie about fracking, and that is all it’s about.

Matt Damon stars as Steve Butler, a representative for ‘Global’, a fracking company, who has a great track record of going into Small Town America to persuade them to surrender their land to the frackers. He teams up with Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand), and through buying flannel shirts and using his own background in agriculture, the pair win (read: buy) over a lot of people’s land. However, an uppity environmentalist (played by John Krasinski) threatens to sabotage their plans with pictures of dead cows. Who will win?

For those unaware, ‘fracking’ is a process which involves drilling into the earth and injecting it with a cocktail of water and less friendly chemicals in order to extract the natural gas lurking below the surface. While it appears to be less of an environmental burden than those gigantic oil refineries, seismologists point to the increase of earthquakes in areas which allow fracking, and ecologists note how the various chemicals involved may spill into drinking water. The goal is clean energy, but the process itself is undoubtedly harmful.

So an interesting moral dilemma is set up: Damon and McDormand are peddling an obviously flawed business (though Damon’s intentions are pure – the injection of capital into this little town will revitalise it, which failed to happen with his own rural commune back in Iowa). Yet they are the protagonists, and are much more likeable as people compared to Krasinski’s sneakiness and dishonesty.

Way too much of this film takes place in a field.

Way too much of this film takes place in a field.

But this is about all that’s worthy of compliment about this film. Everything else is just so bland: characters are barely developed beyond minimal backstory, it’s overlong and drags in many places, and not a lot actually happens. There is no actual fracking, only a threat of fracking, and as such is almost like some kind of heady green horror movie. The only interesting characters are played by Hal Holbrook and the gloriously-named Titus Welliver, a teacher and guns/gas/guitars/grocery shop owner, who barely get any screen time whatsoever. McDormand is the sole source of humour for the entire showtime, but her dry wit is unfortunately sparse.

The big problem with this film is one which is critical of its genre, really: if you’re going to make a ‘message movie’, i.e. one that has a clear agenda, then be subtle. Mask it, hide it but never completely obscure it. Documentaries can get straight to the point, but as a drama this is only about fracking, and nothing else. Rather than an anti-fracking movie masquerading as a drama, Promised Land is so blunt and hits you over the head with its message. You have to hide the heartworm pill in the dog food, otherwise he won’t eat it.

It’s long and it’s boring, yet you can’t fault the performances or the eco-friendly agenda. Promised Land is as middle of the road as they come, but on the dual carriageway of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, I’m afraid it’s driving the wrong way down the latter. I wholeheartedly agree with the message, but it’s just not a good movie!

Simon says: be safe, be green!


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