Matt Damon reteams with Good Will Hunting director Gus Van Sant for anti-fracking drama Promised Land. Written by Damon and John Krasinski, Promised Land is less preachy than I feared it might be, but the film still straddles the thorny line between entertainment and social commentary. Damon plays an agent of Global Crosspower Solutions tasked with securing drilling rights from families so his company can unearth natural gas beneath their rural farms. Krasinski shows up as a one-man environmental resistance and stages a moral standoff with Damon and his partner, played by Frances McDormand. Promised Land is well acted and decently entertaining, but one can't help feeling that the film is as manipulative as its characters.
For professional natural gas salesmen, Steve Butler (Damon) and Sue Thomason (McDormand) are kind of underwhelming. Perhaps that's because they prey on out-of-luck communities, making any hard sale a breeze. The pair moves to a town fingered as a hotbed for natural gas, stocks up on local garb, and attempts to blend in among the natives. Butler has little trouble convincing most rural Pennsylvanians that selling drilling rights to Global is their only way out of the economic depression. Butler is just days from leaving his latest small town in the dust and claiming a cushy corporate position when environmentalist Dustin Noble (Krasinski) shows up and stirs the pot with shocking facts and pictures about hydraulic fracturing. The once eager townspeople begin spurning Global's involvement in their community, and Butler's position at the energy company is put in jeopardy for the first time.
Fracking has received a lot of press, most of it negative, in the last couple of years. The process, which the film explains in sparse detail, involves using pressurized liquid to blast apart rock layers for drilling to the natural gas trapped underneath. Critics cite increasing evidence that fracking contaminates groundwater, soil, and air quality and can kill surrounding plant and animal life. You know a film about fracking is going to have an agenda, and Promised Land is certainly not pro-fracking propaganda. Even so, the film provides a fairly evenhanded, if surface level, critique of the process. There are no Bible-thumping conservative or Prius-and-granola liberal caricatures, and Van Sant was smart to pick Damon as the not-so-bad guy. It's hard not to like Damon, and Butler has to do a lot for the audience to forget their affinity for the actor. Having Jim from NBC's "The Office" play the environmentalist was a good choice too, and Krasinski plays him as a quick-witted pragmatist instead of a tree-hugging dreamer.
The film errs in its assumption that the audience doesn't want to dig deeper into the core conflict. Two hours of geology would be boring, but Promised Land sails over most of the details. Hal Holbrook is the film's scapegoat, and his character is forced to stand at a town meeting and challenge Butler's assertion that fracking is safe. That doesn't seem to matter in the long run; some of the residents don't really care about his message or Noble's signs showing rotting farms full of dead cows. More interesting is the dick-measuring contest between Butler and Noble, and their feud turns personal when the affections of a local teacher (Rosemarie Dewitt) are thrown into the pot. The finale offers Butler a chance at redemption, and some late-game revelations are genuinely surprising. It's this finale, however, that makes Promised Land's previous equity a bit of a ruse. When the rug was finally pulled out from under my feet, I knew Promised Land had its endgame in sight from the beginning.
The 1.85:1/1080p/AVC-encoded image is expectedly good, with solid detail and sharpness. Van Sant desaturates the colors, giving the film a somewhat dour appearance, but the image remains film-like at all times. Detail is good in close-ups and wide shots, and compression artifacts are not an issue. Black levels are good and is crush minimal, and instances of softness are certainly intentional.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack handles the material well. Dialogue is clear and free from hiss or distortion, and is layered appropriately with effects and score. The mix is largely front-loaded, but ambient effects due make their way to the surround speakers. The score is rich and fluid, and the LFE responds appropriately. A Spanish 5.1 DTS track is also included, as are English SDH, Spanish and French subtitles.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
Universal releases Promised Land in its usual Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Copy "combo pack" format, and kindly includes both iTunes-compatible and UltraViolet digital copies. The discs are packed in a standard Blu-ray case, which is wrapped in a slipcover. Only two brief extras appear: The Making of Promised Land (10:38/HD) is a brief, largely promotional making-of featurette with interviews from the cast and crew, and one Extended Scene (1:52/HD) sees Damon giving some advice on tough love to his boss.
Round three for Matt Damon and Director Gus Van Sant (after Good Will Hunting and Gerry) uses current topic of debate fracking as the backbone for the drama in Promised Land. Damon plays an effective natural gas salesman tasked with securing drilling rights in rural communities, and his world is thrown into chaos when John Krasinski's environmentalist starts stirring up the town with commentary on the dangers of fracking. Promised Land largely avoids patronizing its audience, but it still feels like the players were more concerned with pushing their anti-fracking agenda than entertaining the masses. Rent It.