I walked out of the theatre disliking Promised Land and the more I reflect on the film, the less I like it.
On paper, there is a lot to love about the film: strong performances by John Krasinski and Matt Damon, supported by an excellent cast including Frances McDormand, Titus Welliver and Hal Halbrook; solid direction by Gus Van Sant, supported with gorgeous cinematography by Linus Sandgren and crisp editing by Billy Rich. And for a brief minute, during the impromptu debate between high school teacher Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook) and gas fracking advocate Steve Butler (Matt Damon), it seems like Promised Land has something to say about the death of nuance in political discourse, about the way that the volume of partisan debate has increased, drowning out rational conversation. Until you realize that Krasinski, Damon and Van Sant intend to complain about the death of nuance through the cinematic equivalent of screaming in your ears at the top of their lungs for the last third of the film.
Since the biggest problem with the film is the script written by Krasinski and Damon, it becomes a little difficult to praise them for their performances. Part of that problem is that the focus of the film is the conflict between Steve Butler, an executive for a natural gas company called Global Crosspower Solutions, and Dustin Noble (John Krasinski) the one man band for the environmental company Superior Athena. With the focus on Krasinski and Damon, there is no room for the film’s most interesting character: Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand) who works with Butler at Global. Thomason is almost like a character from another movie, like an extra salesperson from Glengarry Glen Ross who slipped into this film.
Where Butler is a true believer in the power of fracking in general – and Global specifically – to rescue this small town, Thomason declares instead “It’s just a job,” just a way for her to pay for her family – her son. Sue even uses her son in her sales pitches, grinding out every advantage to close a deal. Sue likes Steve and the two work well as a sales team, but she also engages in subtle power plays, like getting a truck that Steve can’t drive. (Steve’s rejection of his Iowa farm background is so total that he is psychologically incapable of dealing with a stick shift.) Thomason is smart, funny and like any salesman, bartering away a piece of her soul one closed deal at a time. While Steve’s relationship with the school teacher Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt) is more fantasy than fact, Sue’s relationship with Rob (Titus Welliver) of Rob’s Guns, Groceries, Guitars and Gas - in what brief glimpses that we have of it – is a real connection between two adults, who understand that they are meeting only to part. The saddest moment in the film comes from a pack of gum that Sue tries to buy from Rob on her way out of town, her excuse to say goodbye – only, unable to say the words, Sue can only say, “So that’s that,” which Rob sadly repeats, pushing the money away and giving her the gum, “So that’s that.“
It’s a sad echo of the ringing telephone booth that ends Local Hero, just as Sue Thomason and Steve Butler are echoes of that film’s oil executive, Mac MacIntyre (Peter Riegert). The comparison is not to Promised Land‘s credit. The two film’s plots are strikingly similar: executive for Big Gas/Oil company comes to a small Mid-Western/Scottish town to buy the land rights to drill/build a refinery. But Local Hero respects all of the sides of the argument, even including sides that Promised Land ignores.
In Promised Land, the members of the town in favor of fracking are shown to be either corrupt like the town official Gerry Richards (Ken Strunk), desperate like farmer Drew Scott (Tim Guinee), naive like mother Claire Allen (Sara Lindsey) or stupid like farmer Paul Geary (Lucas Black), while in Local Hero, the entire town are smart and united in an effort – not to stop the oil company, but to drive up the price as high as they can, “We won’t have anywhere to call home, but we’ll be stinkin’ rich.” The Scottish town’s position is essentially the same as Steve Butler’s: the small town farming life is a fantasy, what Steve calls “delusional self-mythology,” and if the oil company wants to buy them out, they will sell.
Where Promised Land gives us two sides to the argument: pro-corporation and pro-environment, Local Hero gives us three (or five depending on how you count): the town, Mac representing the corporation, the land represented by the “crazy” beachcomber Ben Knox (Fulton Mackay), the sea represented by marine researcher/mermaid Marina (Jenny Seagrove) and the sky represented by Mac’s boss, oil billionaire Felix Happer (Burt Lancaster). (Curiously, Happer’s quest for a comet that he can name after himself and become immortal resonates so strongly with astronomers that the 7345 Happer asteroid is named after him.) All three of land, sea and air are also represented by Mark Knopfler’s haunting score. Granted, Local Hero is a bit of a romantic fantasy, but the film does make room, not just for multiple sides of the argument, but also the idea that in the conflict between corporation, man and nature, that the position of nature may tend to be a bit mystical.
It’s not that Promised Land fails to provide gorgeous shots of the farmland around McKinley, Pennsylvania, it’s that the cinematography infantilizes the land and the animals on the land, from Alice’s pet goats, to the pet turtle in her classroom, to the miniature horses, to the dead cows that Dustin Noble puts on flyers and posters all over town. Compare that to the rabbit that Mac saves in Local Hero after he and his local guide hit it with a car, which is later cooked and served to him or the seals that Mac tries to romanticize with Marina by pointing out that sailors once mistook them mermaids, only for Marina to shoot him down with a simple, “Aye they did. They were wrong.“
In my experience, farmers have a very unromantic reaction to dead cattle. (Dairy cows are a bit different, but these were outside animals so they were for eating not milking.) The fact that the cattle died would not upset them, unless the same cause could physically hurt them or their family; the fact that no one – insurance, government or gas corporation – paid for the dead cattle would.
The key moment in the film comes during Dustin Noble’s presentation to Alice’s class, when he oversimplifies the fracking discussion down to burning his model farm and threatening to roast the class’ pet turtle to put the exclamation point on his demonstration. The film ends up putting a sinister spin to Noble’s motives for oversimplifying the discussion, but he is doing nothing different from other environmentalists.
As a specific example of environmentalist exaggeration that I have seen first hand, consider PETAs campaign against the Atlantic Canadian harp seal hunt, even that portion of the hunt run by aboriginal fisherman – continuing a practice thousands of years old, one bred from deep respect for the harp seal and that uses every portion of the animal for meat, clothing, tools or art. The harp seal population is not endangered: populations are now 3 times larger what they were in the 1970s and Fisheries and Oceans Canada believes that, “the harp seal population may be reaching levels close to its natural carrying capacity, which is the maximum number of individuals of a particular species that can be sustained by that species’ ecosystem.” The way that harp seals are killed are no more gruesome than the way that cattle are killed in a slaughterhouse, except that cattle are killed behind closed doors in industrial quantities, while harp seals are killed individually and in the open. The reason that PETA targets the seal hunt is that seals are cute and it is easier to raise money to protect seals who don’t need protecting, than it is to raise money to protect sharks who are in desperate danger from the practice of “finning” – cutting off their fins for shark-fin soup and then throwing them back in the ocean to die. (I recommend the documentary Sharkwater to learn more on the topic.)
It’s not just that the film turns Dustin Noble into a straw man, invalidating his argument to further validate it, it’s that the film has dirt on its hands, oily dirt. Promised Land was paid for in part by the United Arab Emirates, a country with everything to gain from raising concerns about the natural gas that competes with their oil. Their involvement might help explain why the film changed from a story about wind power into a narrative about gas fracking. At the very least, it raises real concerns about this film being a piece of subliminal propaganda.
While the film is busy demonizing the Dustin Noble character, it is also in the process of becoming the Dustin Noble character – a compromised, shrill, one-sided, unnuanced political roar that drowns out rational discussion.