Thursday, December 27, 2012

No dramatic bounty in 'Promised Land'

Credit Matt Damon, who co-wrote the new movie Promised Land with actor John Krasinski, for tackling a difficult subject. Too bad, Damon and Krasinksi didn't come up with a stronger, more credible script for their movie about issues facing a small rural town when a natural gas company starts dangling major money for fracking rights.

Granted, it's difficult to make a dramatic feature about a subject as controversial and complicated as fracking, but the details in Promised Land don't always compute and a less-than-credible late-picture plot twist limits the movie's power.

Promised Land reunites Damon with director Gus Van Sant, who directed Good Will Hunting (1997), a movie that won screenwriting Oscars for Damon and his then partner Ben Affleck. Van Sant also directed Gerry (2002), a movie that Damon wrote with Casey Affleck and Van Sant.

This time, Damon -- who has appeared in all the movies he's written -- plays Steve Butler, a representative for a natural gas company. His assignment: buying drilling rights from economically stressed farmers. On the verge of a major promotion, Steve is one of the company's best closers, a guy known for achieving success while offering farmers rock-bottom prices. Needless to say, Steve doesn't say much about dangers posed by fracking.

Steve's success stems from his ability to relate to farmers. He grew up on an Iowa farm, and understands that most small farmers are struggling to make ends meet. He views his company's offers as a kind of salvation for farmers -- and, to the movie's credit -- there's some truth in Steve's pitch. Why should farmers sacrifice the future of their families for some romanticized, and in Steve's view, misplaced loyalty to the land?

Steve plies his trade with a down-to-earth partner (an underutilized Frances McDormand), a good-humored, no-nonsense woman for whom the work is just that -- a job, a way to support her son and earn a living. An eye-on-the-ball gal, McDormand's Sue doesn't waste time entangling herself in moral issues.

All seems to be going well for these representatives of Global Gas in their latest assignment until a town meeting at which a high-school science teacher (Hal Holbrook) raises questions about dangers associated with fracking. Holbrook's Frank Yates also wonders whether the promised rewards aren't being exaggerated.

Damon, Krasinksi and Van Sant have a feel for small-town life in an agricultural community and for how reps for a natural gas company might operate. When Steve and Sue arrive in town, they stop at a local store to buy clothing that they hope will make them look more like the town's residents.

But the movie falters when it comes to other details and perhaps even in the way Damon's character develops. First off, I found it difficult to believe that a born-and-bred Iowa farm boy such as Steve wouldn't know how to strive a stick-shift car; the movie uses Steve's difficulty with stick shifting as a running joke.

And when an environmentalist (Krasinski) shows up to warn the townspeople that fracking can result in dead live stock and poisoned land, the movie starts to feel contrived.

Obviously, the script builds toward a crisis of conscience for Steve, but that, too, stuck me as a stretch. This isn't Steve's first rodeo. You'd think he already would have worked out any moral issues stemming from the work he does. He seems a little too naive.

Are we supposed to believe that Steve begins to see new light because he meets an appealing woman in town (Rosemarie DeWitt)? Or is he thunderstruck when he receives revealing new information about the mammoth company that employs him? Maybe he never entirely abandoned his farm-boy roots.

You get the picture. Good intentions don't always make for a good movie, and although Promised Land captures some of the informalities of small-town life and, commendably, tries to find a bit of balance, it falls short both as a character study of a conflicted oil rep and as an expression of agitated social conscience.

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