Promised Land has nothing but good intentions and I agree with what it has to say. It tries to expose the dangers of natural gas drilling by highlighting a small farming community, the inhabitants of which don’t have the slightest clue about what could possibly happen if these companies begin fracking, and a small group’s battle to stop the destruction of their community. After watching the terrific Oscar nominated documentary film, Gasland, the dangers of such a procedure are clearly evident, and even with all that on its side, Promised Land still doesn’t work, exaggerating nearly everything to the point of absurdity, including the lengths a company will go to begin the fracking process.
Steve Butler (Matt Damon) works for a natural gas company. He is working hard for a promotion and his latest job entails purchasing a local farming community’s land so they can begin drilling for gas. So, along with his partner, Sue (Frances McDormand), Steve sets off to do just that. However, before he’s even aware of it, an environmental group led by a sole activist named Dustin (John Krasinski) is in town and trying to change the people’s minds with horror stories of his own experiences with his community being overtaken by natural gas companies. It quickly becomes a showdown between the two factions, each fighting to convince the town that the other is trying to manipulate them.
Such a story is ripe for drama. The natural opposition between big business and small town, between those trying to make money through destruction and those trying to save their land despite their poverty, is gripping stuff. A small environmental group spreading truth and convincing the people to stand up against the bigwigs who think they can win any argument by throwing money at it is inspiring. But that’s not the direction Promised Land takes. Without ruining it, it instead approaches its topic from a “conspiracy theory” angle, with a late movie twist that is so ridiculous it somehow manages to over-demonize the corporation it has already made quite clear is up to no good anyway. Instead of feeling anger towards the characters in the movie, the ones that are aiming to harm the innocent townsfolk who don’t know any better, your anger is directed at the filmmakers for taking what should have been a simple, effective story and pushing it so far over the top as to be self-parody.
And that phrase isn’t used lightly in this context. In one scene, when Steve is sitting at a bar, the rest of the town now suspicious of what he’s trying to do, the film comes dangerously close to the clichéd “we don’t take kindly to strangers” bar scene that has been endlessly satirized at this point. In another, the townspeople stand in unison against the proposal to begin fracking in their town, similar to how soldiers in a war movie all step forward at the same time to fight the good fight. It’s like watching a movie come to life that was written by a first time screenwriter who wanted to tackle a serious issue, but knew nothing beyond the dramatic tropes he’s seen in television soap operas. All the more surprise comes when one finds out it was actually written by Damon and Krasinski, the former of who actually won an Academy Award for his Good Will Hunting screenplay in 1997 and should know how to avoid such typical Hollywood pratfalls.
The writing, put simply, lacks subtlety. It refuses to allow viewers to form their own opinions, instead forcing you to hop onboard with its heavy-handed approach or be left behind. Just when you think Promised Land can’t pile it on anymore, it somehow does and then continues to do so until the end. It’s as if the filmmakers made a bet with themselves to see if they could make each successive scene cheesier and more laughable than the last (and if that’s the case, bravo). The only thing saving the film from complete disaster is its surprising amount of humor, including its utilization of rack focus to create a number of visual gags that are downright inspired. The problem is that humor works counterproductive to the film’s serious goal, so when the drama does come into play, it feels out of place and exaggerated. If you’re really interested in the subject, watch the aforementioned Gasland, because it doesn’t matter if you’re for or against natural gas drilling, Promised Land reeks of manipulation.
Promised Land receives 2/5