PROMISED LAND (2012)
(directed by Gus Van Sant)
*** 1/2 (out of 5)
. The accomplished American director Gus Van Sant (YOUR OWN PRIVATE IDAHO, MILK, ELEPHANT) piloted this terse drama, penned by the two lead actors, including Academy Award winning screenwriter Matt Damon. (Workhorse Frances McDormand and the great Hal Holbrook fill out the cast, in predictably excellent form, along with Rosemarie DeWitt, familiar to some from ‘The United States of Tara’ and now ‘The Newsroom’.) Firmly rooted in this moment, this resonant film deals with the enticing but fraudulent economic temptation of “cheap” energy accessed through the dubious (I would say criminal) process of “fracking”- or fracturing sub-strata of rock to release the natural gas locked in it. Whole towns in America are withering away, as the farming paradigm that sustained them falls prey to that rush to the bottom we call globalization. Fracking is a process that offers the mirage of economic relief to farmers whose lifestyle teeters on the verge of oblivion. In this desperate climate, where the real owners of people’s lives are the banks, the lure of a sudden one-time cash payout for surrendering their land rights to the big energy companies is almost irresistible.
. Reliable actor Matt Damon (one of the best of his generation), casts himself as the bad guy here: a representative of corporate powers who want to sweep in to small towns across America and grab the drilling rights for a pittance before pesky environmentalists can catch wind of it. Being a man of conscience and integrity, Mr. Damon does not take parts that do not reflect his values and world view- so naturally this “villain” who is so arrogant and entitled, is nonetheless positively motivated by experiences from his own past. He genuinely believes he is doing good by offering people the only way out of otherwise inevitable corporate rape. He sees no problem with their taking the money and looking the other way- only wishing his family had made the same choice when faced with the loss of their farm. When an apparent environmental activist arrives to stir the local populace against him, (competently played by his co-writer John Krasinski- familiar from TV’s sitcom ‘The Office’) this self-important man who is used to getting his own way is so livid he threatens to punch they guy out for daring to oppose his unopposable corporate masters.
. This being a liberal fantasy, (Duh: Matt Damon wrote it, Gus van Sant directed it!) there is never any doubt the worm will turn in the third act, as the cognitive dissonance of his mission begins to weigh heavily on his mind. Once “the big reveal” happens, the rest of the film is a bit of a stretch. PROMISED LAND is not a great movie- not Gus Van Gant’s best work, (certainly no GOOD WILL HUNTING), but it’s a solid effort about an important subject. I hope people see it, forgive the predictability of the ending and begin a conversation on the topic. Is it really “cheap energy” if the act of extracting it from the earth causes earthquakes, sickens livestock and probably people as well, decimates the land and poisons the groundwater with horribly grievous chemicals we aren’t even allowed to know about because in this case the law protects the guilty profiteers, calling these dangerous pollutants “proprietary information”.
. Simply: their right to pollute and destroy the planet trumps our right to know about it. Is this okay? Shall we allow it to continue? Should tapwater be FLAMMABLE?!
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