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On the Screen

January 11, 2013

‘Promised Land’ fades away too easily

MILLEDGEVILLE — “Promised Land”

Rated R for language.

Family farms are fading away. Farmers are going broke. Corporations have taken over agriculture. So what is a small farm community to do to survive? Not many options. It’s easy to have high principles about the land and American (Midwestern) rural values, but at the expense of starvation and bankruptcy? Tough call, that.  

Former Iowan Steve Butler (Matt Damon) and Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand) arrive in town with a solution: natural gas. Not sure how to pay your bills? Afraid to lose your land? Just sign here and the drilling company will do their business and you will be saved and make millions.  

Steve and Sue seem to be saying, “We are from Free Enterprise System and we are here to help you.” At a town meeting, however, some octogenarian (Hal Holbrook), a former engineer from Boeing who moved to Small Town, America to retire and teach science, messes with Matt and Sue’s nearly completed slam dunk sales project. He points out that fracking has killed animals and poisoned water sources. And then comes along Dustin Noble (Josh Krasinski) espousing the environmentalist gospel, just as smooth (perhaps smoother) a salesman as is Steve, but intent on scaring the town folk with pictures of dead cows and sob stories about losing his family farm in Nebraska due to Steve and Sue’s company. Steve keeps saying, “I’m not a bad guy” and with Matt Damon’s face, who is to dispute? And he is able to remind them all that he is one of them — his hometown in Iowa vanished because it did not grasp the brass ring from a friendly company simply wanting to provide a mutually beneficial solution to a nearly impossible problem. Despite the solid acting and not-awful script, this is a controversial subject. It still makes Big Business mega-evil. It does provide some shades of gray (no literary pun intended) to the good versus bad arguments of fracking and using gas rather than foreign oil but we clearly know which side the film makers stand. Corporations have cheated people for generations to achieve a quick profit. “The people” are not really stupid; they simply deceive themselves on the hope of survival — of winning the lottery. They allow stupidity to possess them in order to make the fear go away … even irrationally and temporarily.  

The Left Wing and Environmentalists will rejoice. The Right Wing and Big Business will cry “foul” over “Promised Land.” And note that the title of the film is not “Promise Land” but “Promised” land. Wink, wink, readers … there is meaning in that there title. I will put the politics aside and declare that I have some problems with the film unconnected to the debate. I love Frances McDormand and Matt Damon’s chemistry. They needle each other, usually Steve getting the worst of it. That was fun to watch. But, Steve is supposed to be a former Iowa farm boy, but he can’t drive a stick shift? Really? The film is way too long. And by trying to achieve some bucolic but humble atmosphere it lacks snap. It made me kind of sad, this depiction of rural life. Maybe environmental ruination isn’t so bad if life like that is the way it is depicted in “Promised Land.” Some of that was intentional, of course. The town’s people are a bit too noble … but yet they keep signing the leases. All of that seems a bit incongruent to me. At some point Sue and Steve are shunned by nearly the entire town except for one village idiot — but we see families sign the leases. There is a disconnect there; it made the plot hard to grasp. Hal Holbrook is brought along for wisdom and gravitas but after a strong start his character fades out to a rather wooden and wimpy conscience for Steve. And there lies the problem, under the surface, I might pun, with the film. It fades away — unresolved — without a clear understanding of the fracking point of this film. “Promised Land” strikes only two and a half bow ties out of five.

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