Thursday, April 25, 2013

DVD/Blu-ray: Pleasingly low-key "Promised Land" informs and entertains

Promised Land (2012)
106 min., rated R.

Fracking—the process of drilling for natural gas—does not sound like it would be a subject dying for a cinematic treatment or an easy sell to most mainstream audiences. The controversial topic of hydraulic fracturing has led a trend, starting with the 2010 Oscar-nominated documentary "Gasland," and now we have a narrative film about it. While some films aren't about anything, "Promised Land" is really about something and yet it doesn't throw its advocacy message on like a paperweight as you might fear. It should be credited to co-stars Matt Damon and John Krasinski penning the script from a story by Dave Eggers (2009's "Away We Go" and "Where the Wild Things Are") and getting director Gus Van Sant (who, of course, worked from Damon's scripts on "Good Will Hunting" and "Gerry") on board. 

Damon plays Steve Butler, a corporate-climbing salesman for the natural gas company Global Crosspower Corporations. He and his partner, Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand), come to the podunk farming town of McKinley, Pennsylvania, to persuade the financially struggling folk by filling their heads with fake promises that their land could be a goldmine. Some of them can't wait to cash in and some are very skeptical, especially local science teacher Frank (a wonderful Hal Holbrook). While in town, Steve learns he has been promoted to VP, trusting himself to get the community to vote in favor of drilling for the supposedly "clean and efficient resource" over coal and oil. Frank sticks to his guns at a town meeting in the school gym, casting his vote against fracking and calling the process a "dirty business." Then, to exacerbate the situation for Steve and Sue, an environment presence arrives into McKinley in the form of Dustin Noble (John Krasinski). He's a personable, confident fellow from a small environmental group, Superior Athena, and essentially rallies the town against Global. Steve might be way in over his head but isn't about to leave.

For a film that might be introducing many to "fracking" for the first time, the film very easily could have announced its significance at every turn with preachy sledgehammer tactics. But not only does it mean well, it both informs and entertains, which isn't always an easy feat. Sincere without being corny, "Promised Land" is a low-key, nicely acted Capra-esque advocacy drama. With well-rounded characters, sufficient dramatic tension, and character-based humor adding life to the arid subject, this is more pleasing than one might expect. It hums along at an unforced pace to match the speed of sleepy small-town America, and the rural vistas are invitingly photographed by Linus Sandgren.

Damon, playing a heart-on-his-sleeve idealist who eventually sees the light, and Krasinski, in his charismatic, aw-shucks mode, both manage to be likable in spite of their opposite sides of their individual vocations. Steve is neither a shady huckster nor a city-slicker cliché but a guy who's actually grown up in a small Iowa town, knowing about agriculture (but can't drive a stick-shift?) and saw his own farming community go down the tubes when the factory shut down. He's humble enough to say he doesn't have all the answers, but Dustin immediately wins over the town, singing on Open-Mic night at the local bar and going door to door with flyers, and then becomes an obstacle for Steve and his new love interest, Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt), a single schoolteacher. And if there has to be a love interest, it might as well be DeWitt, who's naturally radiant and instantly appealing in everything. 

Best in show is a likably tough and smartassy McDormand. So sly and sharp in her delivery as Sue, the actress adds some shadings to an underdeveloped character who simply thinks "it's just a job" so she can provide for her son's education. Without being handled with condescension, many of the locals feel like real people with a good balance of quirks and authenticity. This is just nitpicking, but several character actors (Lucas Black, Scoot McNairy, Titus Welliver) don't get the time they deserve while still giving yeoman's work.

In the third act, the screenplay pulls a fast one on us about a character pretending to be someone they're not. But until ultimately revealing its obvious stance on the issue of fracking, "Promised Land" never beats us over the head PSA-style with an agenda or becomes too pat to digest. It presents one man's sympathetic journey where there are no easy fixes and nothing is just black and white.


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