Promised Land (2012) features quite incredible pedigree – Gus Van Sant, Matt Damon, Frances McDormand and Dave Eggers are all involved – and is about a hot-button issue in fracking for natural gas, but strangely has had next to no hype around it. Here in Australia it has had a muted release, with only one of the four cinemas I frequent showing the film.
Having seen the film though, it is pretty easy to see why the film has generated a total lack of fuss. Whilst nothing about the film is bad, indeed it is all very slickly and professionally executed, the film is basically one giant cliché. Matt Damon plays an executive for a natural gas company. Along with his offsider Frances McDormand, they travel the American countryside, signing up farmers to allow fracking for gas on their land. They make a cool onscreen working team. Watching this made me realise that a Thelma and Louise (1991) remake starring Matt Damon and Frances McDormand in the main roles would be basically the greatest thing ever. No script, just them driving around the countryside for 90 minutes talking shit. I digress, in Australia, fracking (generally for coal seam gas) is all of a sudden a HUGE issue, and yes the capitals are necessary. I suspect it is a similarly sized issue in America too. In Australia at least, in one corner we have the big, bad, evil coal and gas multinationals, facing off against the unlikely alliance of green groups and agricultural organisations in the other corner. Basically, there is so much of this whole issue that is ripe for exploration and exposition through a great seam gas film. Unfortunately, Promised Land is definitely not that great film.
Overall, the film is much like the sales patter that Damon and McDormand use on their potential targets. Too slick for its own good. There is a Hollywood sheen in both material and execution that the film never transcends. It is pretty clear from the start who the good guys are and the bad guys are, and it is also always pretty clear where the film will end up. A huge twist toward the end falls ultra flat and just adds to the predictability of it all really. The narrative is so clunky. All the townsfolk seem for the gas company coming is. That is until the crusty old science teacher gets up at the town meeting in the local school hall and educates the locals about the potential dangers of fracking. That’s the quality of narrative surprise you are basically stuck with for the whole film. Obviously any fictional film on an issue such as this will be a simplification, but this just feels like a vast oversimplification. The film briefly touches on some super interesting territory, such as the manner in which these companies prey on those of lower socio-economic status, the broader reasons behind the collapse of small-town America (and by extension Australia) and why good people work for really evil corporations. But these issues, as well as basically all the others the film contemplates, are examined in a very superficial, un-nuanced way.
The film does look great, although it is not hugely creative in the way it is shot, just very glossy. A couple of the performances are really good too. Matt Damon really is an exceptional actor, even when the material is not particularly good. And this material is not particularly good, the dialogue not at all sharp within a script that is just average overall. I have already mentioned Frances McDormand and unsurprisingly she is really good. Her and Damon are great together onscreen. Unfortunately the performance of Justin Kransinski (who also co-wrote the film with Damon) as an environmentalist who clashes with Damon drove me up the wall. He imbues his character with such an annoying presence that makes it impossible to warm to him and more importantly makes you wonder how he becomes such a darling of the townsfolk. Kransinski’s character just ruins the whole tone of the film, jarring with what has come before. Overall, the film is almost bizarre, because it is so hard to see what Van Sant and friends were going for. It is such an uneven experience.
Sorely lacking in edge, Promised Land is not the great seam gas film that really could be made, which is all the more disappointing given the fantastic bunch of people behind it. Clearly it is not all bad, Damon and McDormand really do light up the screen every time they are on it. But I really struggle to recommend it on any level.
Verdict: Schooner of Carlton Draught