The environmental agenda of Promised Land overshadows its story. Directed by academy-nominated director Gus Van Sant (Milk, Good Will Hunting), the screenplay is written by the two believable male leads, Matt Damon who plays energy company executive Steve Butler and John Krasinski who plays environmentalist Dustin Noble. It is their interaction that moves both the action and the agenda.
Based on a story by Dave Eggers, the setting is a small town in Pennsylvania where times are hard as residents attempt to make a living on farms that have been in their families for generations.
When Butler and his partner Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand) come to town to offer leases to drill for natural gas, most are ready to jump at the chance to make “millions.” But they quickly run into a problem when the local high school science teacher Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook) questions the practice of fracking, which the powerful company uses to remove the gas.
It is this David and Goliath battle between the lone environmentalist up against the greedy energy company that is at the center of the tale. Making the battle more caustic is their rivalry over the beautiful young teacher Alice (Rosemarie Dewitt).
With an air of superiority fitting his name, Noble causes Butler to question his role in selling the town to place the residents’ beloved farms in danger. This moral struggle reaches deep within him because of Butler’s own family history in which his grandfather lost their family farm when he was a child due to the closure of a large factory in the area and its resulting economic collapse. He personally understands both the loss of one’s farm and the solution of money that he offers through leases to drill for gas. It is not an easy line he walks, but as the viewer soon realizes, it is not the only one he must negotiate.
For those who know life in a small town and on a farm, there are some aspects of the film that reveal that someone who has personally experienced this life did not write it. From the comic inclusion of a farm-raised person who does not know how to drive with a clutch to the expectation that a town fair would win everyone’s vote, the story lacks both depth and understanding. But that is not to say that the dialogue does not reflect the internal struggle such a decision might be to those who find themselves in financial need. In many ways, it is the same decision we are all making as a nation. What are we willing to risk to continue to use the fuel buried deep beneath us? This film does not answer this question but it does help clarify the choices we must make.
Discussion for those who have seen this film:
1. In a day when we are looking for ways to reduce our dependence on oil, do you believe “cross over” fuels such as natural gas are a solution? What do you think about the dangers of fracking?
2. When Butler makes the decision he does at the end of the film, his life takes a dramatic change. If you were in his shoes, what choice would you make? Why?
3. Have you lived in a small town or on a farm? How did you experience the film’s characterization of the farm town’s people? Do you believe they were presented fairly and respectfully or not? Why do you answer as you do?
Cinema In Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of the Free Methodist Church of Santa Barbara. For more reviews: www.cinemainfocus.com.