Friday, December 28, 2012


Promised Land

Promised Land Imagine that you own a farm and you are struggling in this depressing economy. Then a natural gas corporation comes to you to hand you a large amount of cash in exchange of drilling right on your farm. What would you do? Do you take the money as a quick relief or do you preserve the farming tradition and take a stand on protecting the environment? That's the dilemma focused in director Gus Van Sant's conventional yet engaging drama "Promised Land" (USA 2012 | 109 min.). The film's theme (and the outcome) is already familiar to us in other environmental films—the less powered individuals take up on large corporation's aggressive campaigns that damage our environment (remember "Erin Brockovich?"). However, a few well-written characters make the film much more enjoyable than its subject matter, thanks to the screenwriters John Krasinski and Matt Damon, both give a fine leading role performance in the film.

The film's protagonist Steve Butler (Matt Damon) is a rising star in a gas company called Global Crosspower Solutions. In the backdrop of this trying economy, with his persuasive sales-pitch-driven charisma and his personal farming background from Iowa, Steve is ambitious and confident to quickly round up large amount of farm lands in McKinley, PA for future gas drilling. He and his equally sharp colleague Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand) arrive the town and expect to be out in couple of days with offers the locals cannot refuse.

That turns out to be a wishful thinking. Steve and Sue are confronted with oppositions from the local community led by a well-informed school teacher Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook), and an energetic out-of-towner environmentalist Dustin Noble (John Krasinski). They educate the locals about the irreversible damage caused by a gas company's hydraulic fracturing drilling. Worse, Dustin becomes Steve's rival in courting an attractive school teacher Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt).

Steve and Sue must continue their efforts to convince the farmers to give up their farms, even though the filmmakers are determined to make it a losing battle.

Frances McDormand and Matt Damon in Promised Land. Photo:Scott Green

Director Gus Van Sant conventionally unfolds the story and finely crafts a few well-liked, often amusing characters. John Krasinski and Matt Damon certainly know these arresting characters they play inside out, because they wrote the roles for themselves. In fact if the topic were changed from gas drilling to something else such as organic farming, I think the film and its characters would come out just as entertaining as this one.

It's no secret that the film has an environmental message to deliver besides telling an interesting story, and it's rightfully entitled to do so. However, that positive message is compromised by the shortcut in reaching to the predictable outcome. It boils a complicated issue down to a simple wink: "See, I told you so that the big corporation is up for no good." Unfortunately, it trivializes the matter and tarnishes the integrity and intelligence of the film.

Matt Damon's character Steve repeatedly pleas to the locals: "I am not a bad guy." Well, of course he is not. Did Matt Damon ever play a bad guy besides "The Talented Mr. Ripley?" What if he were indeed a bad guy in this film? That might have made this a much better film, but that would be bad for the environment. So, no.

"Promised Land," a Focus Features release, opens on Friday, December 28, 2012 at Bay Area theaters.

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