FRACKING Matt Damon
BY RICHARD ROEPER SUN-TIMES COLUMNIST January 2, 2013 12:40PM
(l to r) Frances McDormand stars as Sue and Matt Damon stars as Steve in Gus Van Sant's PROMISED LAND, a Focus Features release. Credit: Scott Green
‘PROMISED LAND’ ★★★
Stars: Matt Damon, Hal Holbrook, John Krasinski, Frances McDormand, Rosemarie DeWitt
Rating: R for language
Length: 1 hr., 40 min.
Updated: February 5, 2013 6:07AM
We always feel as if we’re in good hands with Matt Damon. Whether he’s playing a coldly efficient killing machine of a secret agent trying to regain his memory in a spy thriller franchise or a grieving widower who actually buys a zoo to cheer up his kids in a winningly gooey Cameron Crowe film, we buy it. Is there a more likable, comfortable actor in movies today?
That’s why Damon is so perfectly cast in “Promised Land.” Like the townspeople trying to decide if this guy is their new best friend or if he’s bad news hiding behind a smile and a firm handshake, we want to believe he’s a nice guy and he’s doing the right thing. But is he a savior or the devil in blue jeans and beat-up boots?
This is Damon’s third collaboration with Gus Van Sant, who first directed him in “Good Will Hunting.” (Their second film was the 2002 curiosity piece “Gerry,” and no, you don’t need to cue it up on your video playlist.) Van Sant is that rare director that can deliver innovative, art house classics (“Drugstore Cowboy,” “Elephant”) as well as provocative mainstream fare (“Milk,” “Finding Forrester.”)
“Promised Land” falls squarely into the latter category. It’s a solid, straightforward and balanced take on a controversial issue: the practice known as “fracking” (short for hydraulic fracturing), in which a pressurized mixture of water, sand and chemicals breaks up layers of rock and releases gas or petroleum. The economic benefits can be staggering — but what about the environmental and health concerns?
Damon is terrific as Steve Butler, an earnest, ambitious rep for a huge natural gas company called Global Crosspower. Steve’s mission is simple and seemingly easy: arrive in a dying farm town and offer big bucks in exchange for the right to drill on the land.
All of a sudden, struggling families that are two months’ behind on the mortgage and drowning in debt could become millionaires. What’s not to like about the deal? It’s practically pre-sold. In one house call, Steve is making his pitch to a farmer who needs only to look at this little daughter and contemplate her future before he tells Steve he’s ready to sign.
Not to mention, Steve’s one of them in spirit. He grew up on a farm in Iowa and saw his family lose everything in a heartbeat once the nearby Caterpillar plant closed. He believes drilling for natural gas is a profitable, safe way for these families to avoid the economic fate that took down his father’s farm.
But these folks are no rubes. Frank (Hal Holbrook), a retired scientist, has some pointed questions about the consequences of fracking. At first, Steve thinks this is just some old guy in a flannel shirt seeking attention in a gymnasium town hall meeting, but a little bit of research tells him Frank might have him out-credentialed. (Hal Holbrook is 87. He played “Deep Throat” in “All the President’s Men,” which came out when Matt Damon was 6. And he can still knock it out of the park.)
And then there’s the aptly named Dustin Noble (John Krasinski), an environmentalist who rallies the town against Steve’s plan. Dustin can out-grin and out-sincere Steve — plus, he has some devastating photos of dead cows strewn about farms where Global Crosspower has drilled, and horror stories about barren land and contaminated water.
Frances McDormand provides invaluable support as Steve’s pragmatic partner, who keeps reminding him it’s a job, and theirs is not to question why. Rosemarie DeWitt is lovely and sharp as a local teacher who catches Steve’s eye. The screenplay, written by Damon and Krasinski, never panders or condescends. Some of the seemingly smart characters can’t see the forest for the trees, and some of the more naive ones might have more going on than meets the eye.
This is not some anti-fracking lecture from liberal Hollywood. If “Promised Land” doesn’t achieve the emotional resonance of “Erin Brockovich,” that’s in part because the heroes and villains aren’t as clear-cut. Until the final scenes, we’re not entirely sure for whom to root.
Filled with first-rate performances, most notably Damon’s, “Promised Land” is a solid if at times too conventional tale of a classic moral conflict. If Frank Capra were making movies in the 21st century, you could see him tapping Matt Damon as his go-to guy.