Saturday, December 29, 2012


Fracking, the process by which energy companies drill into shale deposits deep underground and then shoot a mixture of water and undisclosed chemicals into the hole in order to extract natural gas, is rightly controversial. You may not have seen Gasland, the essential documentary on the subject, but you’re surely aware of that film’s most remarkable images of people lighting their tap water on fire. Fracking is safe and contamination of nearby water sources is next to impossible, at least that’s what the energy companies have a vested interest in having you believe. The good idea behind the newest anti-fracking film, Promised Land, is the way it puts those words in the mouth of its main character, a company man played by Matt Damon. His job is to ride into a small town and convince property owners to sell the rights to the shale under their feet in exchange for a big check and promises of residual checks to come.

Damon and his coworker (Frances McDormand) go door to door in an economically devastated town where the money offered sounds good. Too good to be true, says the local science teacher played by Hal Holbrook. An out-of-towner environmentalist played by John Krasinski joins the wise old science guy in a campaign to educate the townspeople about the dangers of signing away their town’s livability for an easy payout. Sure, the town would have a brief boom time, but is it worth trading their future livestock, farming, and fresh water? Director Gus Van Sant shoots the small town lovingly, with overhead shots of endless green expanses broken up only by farmhouses, silos, and herds of animals, the better to emphasize what can potentially be taken away.

The script, by Damon and Krasinski with an assist from novelist, essayist, and literary icon of sorts Dave Eggers, makes no effort to hide its didactic intentions. Well, almost no effort, I should say. There’s a wisp of a plot involving both men’s understandable, low-key, low-stakes romantic pursuit of a local teacher (Rosemary DeWitt) that doesn’t really go anywhere productive, but at least it distracts from scenes like Krasinski teaching a class about water contamination or Damon standing in front of an American flag answering tough questions in a local information meeting. It’s all pretty obvious, with character motivations and lines of dialogue blatantly standing in for the sociopolitical argument that’s inelegantly happening in a place somewhere between text and subtext.

The kicker is that the argument is so very noble. Of course we should be worried about what fracking will do to small towns. If anything, it’s a conversation that’s not being held often enough in the public sphere. The way the movie blends an economic and environmental argument is worthy, asking its audience to weigh the considerations of a struggling town’s short- and long-term best interests as the townspeople do. The problem is that there’s nothing else on which to ponder as the film plays out. It’s an editorializing documentary sitting just underneath the thin veneer of drama and I resented being asked to care about characters when they’re nothing more than living, breathing talking points. This is an artless message movie from artful people so carried away with their good message that they forgot to make a movie.

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