There was a time in the late 80’s to early 90’s when Gus Van Sant was the new guy on the scene, churning out exciting indies like “Drugstore Cowboy” and “My Own Private Idaho”. He went Hollywood soon after, turning out commercial dreck like “Good Will Hunting”(there, I’ve said it!)and an ill-conceived remake of Hitchcock’s “Psycho”. Diminished box office returns drove him back to the indie scene, culminating in two great features: 2003’s “Elephant”, a thinly veiled treatment of the Columbine massacre, which won the Palme d’Or at that year’s Cannes Film Festival. Then in 2005, Gus gave us the masterfully spare “Last Days”, a thinly veiled look at the final hours of the life of rocker Kurt Cobain. Van Sant had found his mojo again. But he obviously wasn’t able to hang on to it. After the well-meaning, but underwhelming “Milk” in 2008, and now 2012’s simplistic “Promised Land”—I no longer know which Van Sant to expect to show up. His mainstream films leave me cold. They play like self-important television movies. Lifetime network films with superb cinematography. You can kind of sell-out, if you bring your talent with you. But Van Sant is neutered by the expanding of his budget. With “Promised Land” he’s taken two steps backwards.
“Promised Land” is a message film that takes on the very topical(and important)issue of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”. Fracking is a controversial mining process that attempts to extract natural gas and petroleum from underground rocks and shale. Big oil and gas companies currently are paying people wads of cash to drill on their land in rural areas of Pennsylvania, New York and West Virginia, among others. Many land owners who have allowed this have been hit hard by the economic downturn of the last few years, and therefore desperately need this income. However, the environmental results of this technique are raising much ire in these communities. Contaminated water and air are two of the biggest concerns of the population in the affected areas. In the mix of negative developments are vast reports of respiratory problems for residents and running water that not only emits odor, but also ignites when held to a flame. Opponents of the fracking process document these occurrences on a regular basis. Proponents of the technique call fracking a “clean and safe” way to limit our dependency on foreign natural resources(of course they do). “Promised Land” introduces us to Steve Butler(Matt Damon, who also co-scripted with co-star John Krasinski), a corporate salesman sent with his partner Sue(Oscar-winner Frances McDormand)to garner drilling rights from some of these small town folks. He’s a charming, handsome city boy who originally grew up in farm country, so he’s deemed a perfect candidate for selling this process to the upstate townspeople. You see where this is going, right? Some are for, some are against. The locals definitely need the money in many cases, but an elderly teacher(ancient, yet prolific Hal Holbrook)attempts to lead the campaign against the drilling. There is also the appearance of environmental activist Dustin Noble(Mr. Krasinski), who tries to warn the populace of the dangers of fracking. Matters are also complicated by an alluring area woman(an insultingly wasted Rosemarie DeWitt in a completely perfunctory role)who gets caught between the opposing Butler and Noble. Will Butler grow a conscience and blow his high level job for the sake of the “promised land”? Is Noble the man to stop him, or is there more to him than immediately meets the eye? Will someone ever give Rosemarie DeWitt a film role worthy of her acting prowess? You’ll soon be able to find out at a theater near you.
“Promised Land” is an important story that definitely needs to be told. But is there an excuse for the set-ups to be so familiar(“meet-cutes” in bars…sheesh!), or characters that are so cardboard cut-out? It’s a pleasant watch, but hardly thought-provoking beyond the most basic level. It gets its overall message across, but in the most simplistic way possible. One only needs to watch the firebrand 2010 documentary “Gasland” to witness how much more provocatively this subject can be handled. A very good friend of mine(and regular contributor to this blog)recently relocated from Brooklyn to the New York State heartland to be a teacher. He has informed me more than once on just how contentious the issue of fracking is just a couple of hours out of the Manhattan area. People are certainly concerned about the ravaging of the land, but lack of funds and possible bankruptcy is a pressing issue. Many regular working citizens are unable to turn this cash down. And the oil companies are aware of this. A film like “Promised Land” being made in 2012 is probably long overdue. It’s an earnest and noble attempt. If only it had a more complex screenwriter and a less uneven director. Grade: C+