Gus Van Zandt’s Promised Land explores the controversial world of natural gas mining. At least the film purports itself to be exploring, in reality it only offers a one-sided look at a complex issue that it never fully explores. More specifically the film deals with hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking,” which is the method of drilling for the gas.
The film was written by its two stars, Matt Damon and John Krasinski, who clearly wanted to convey the message that big corporations wanting to take advantage of simple farmers by exploiting their land is bad. When put in those simple terms, it’s hard to disagree, but because the film does not allow the viewer to think any other way, I had to wonder what the point of it all was. Promised Land offers hardly anything more than an indictment of big, bad corporations. That being said I have a hard time saying it’s a horrible movie. The characters are engaging, and the story, though simple, is entertaining enough. Unfortunately the film offers one of the stupidest, and most unnecessary, twists I have ever seen, basically ruining the ending.
Steve Butler (Damon) and Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand) are salespeople for a large natural gas company who are attempting to lease land from small town farmers in order for their company to drill for gas. The town is economically depressed, making their job seem like it will be an in and out process. At first it is. The townspeople are easily swayed by the promise of the potential millions that could be made. However, things take a turn when a high school science teacher (Hal Holbrook) brings up the negative side of fracking at a town meeting. He calls for a vote, jeopardizing the entire mission for the oil company. Soon environmentalist Dustin Noble (Krasinkski) joins the fight and the battle over whether to drill or not escalates.
I actually found the subject matter to be very interesting. As Butler says at one point in the film, being against natural gas is being in favor of oil and coal. Finding out that natural gas may be equally environmentally damaging is disheartening. Steve wholeheartedly believes in his job and that the dangers of fracking are minimal. He’s probably the most interesting character, as there is some complexity to him. He represents a big corporation, but he genuinely seems to care about the people he is selling to. He wants to help the struggling town and believes drilling for gas will make people prosperous. His partner Sue cares only about making the sale and completing the job she was sent there to do. Unlike Steve, she has a family which she cares about much more than her job. She spends her off hours video chatting with her teenage son. The contrast being that Steve is much more emotionally invested in his job, while she treats it as just something she does to earn money. She is not as invested in the welfare of the town as Steve.
Unfortunately the townspeople are not portrayed with any depth at all. They’re treated as simple-minded hicks who are blindly lead in one direction and then the other, without being able to think for themselves. The film really falters on this point, because no exploration of the issues is allowed. Instead of really getting to the meat of the issue, time is spent on an obligatory romance between Steve and local school teacher Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt). The story also builds towards an utterly ridiculous ending that leaves a feeling of pointlessness about the whole thing. It is unfortunate Promised Land felt the need to so strongly push an agenda rather than tell a good story. In fact, the production was partially funded by the United Arab Emirates, which inadvertently enforces the anti-natural gas (and pro-fossil fuels) stance.
The Blu-ray is presented as a 1080p/AVC encoded transfer. One of the best things about the film is the lush scenery of the vast farm land. While I won’t say the colors pop off the screen, I will say I thought they looked totally realistic. The grass fields were the dusty green that can be seen on road trips through the heartland. Everything about it had a lived-in look that worked well for the subject matter of the film. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack also works well. The dialogue, which is extremely prominent, is clear and resonant (though it seems to bleed into the right and left channels instead of remaining anchored to the center). Ambient farm sounds offer a subtle audio backdrop, fitting for the small town life. Overall, I thought everything about the audio-visual presentation worked for this film. The special features are almost non-existent. There is one short EPK making-of piece that is just basically everyone in the film talking about how great it was to work with each other. There is also one extended scene, which offers nothing of consequence.
Overall, I simply can’t recommend this film in good conscience. It wasn’t unpleasant to watch, but there was not enough substance to it to make it worthwhile. Promised Land is a one-sided look at a complex issue and a big let-down considering it could have been a decent story.