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"PROMISED LAND"
(2012) (Matt Damon, Frances McDormand) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Dramedy: A closer for a natural gas company tries to convince residents of a small town to sign over their property for drilling rights, but must contend with various people who object to that.
PLOT:
Steve Butler (MATT DAMON) is a man from a small town who knows how to fit in with other such people. Accordingly, he's become quite good at working for a $9 billion natural gas company in getting small town residents to sign over their property for drilling rights. He's arrived in the latest such place with his business partner, Sue Thomason (FRANCES McDORMAND), and they immediately get to work trying to soft-sell the locals about the influx of cash that could come their way and thus boost both their and the town's fortunes.

Various residents, such as Rob (TITUS WELLIVER) -- who runs the convenience store -- and Paul Geary (LUCAS BLACK) are easy sells. But not everyone is convinced, including high school science teacher Frank Yates (HAL HOLBROOK) who's determined to make sure everyone knows about the potential dangers of fracking. He gets an ally in Dustin Noble (JOHN KRASINSKI) who works for a small environmental cause and doesn't want what happened to his family farm to happen to these good people.

Somewhat caught in the middle is Alice (ROSEMARIE DeWITT), a single teacher who likes both men but isn't sure which is more accurate in their claims. As the town heads for a big vote that will determine their future, Steve and Sue do what they can to battle the opposition and win.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
It's long been said that if you don't want to ruffle feathers, you shouldn't talk politics or religion with people you don't know that well. And that's because most people don't want to have their views, beliefs and such challenged by family and friends, let alone strangers. Of course, that mentality extends far beyond issues of church and state.

Take, for instance, energy. I'm not specifically talking about any given person's physical vitality or lack thereof, although that does somewhat come into play if and when the discussion becomes heated. Instead, I'm referring to what's used to power our world and whether such energy comes from fossils fuels, splitting atoms or renewable resources. If you dare bring up replacing one with another and/or start listing the pros or cons of any, you're bound to see personal temperatures rising.

While the debate between drilling for oil vs. nuclear power vs. clean energy will likely wage on for years if not decades, a "new" player is starting to dominate the world of energy debate. And that would be hydraulic fracturing, a.k.a. "fracking," a technique for extracting natural gas from layers of rock deep underground.

Although it's been in use since the late 1940s, its somewhat newer form -- that's known as horizontal slickwater fracturing -- came about in the late 1980s, but only recently and seemingly somewhat suddenly, burst into the national spotlight. Part of that was due to the 2010 documentary "Gasland" that featured the memorable sight of a homeowner's water supply containing so much gas that the flow from the kitchen spigot literally could be ignited.

With that as the back-story context, we now have "Promised Land," a fictional work from director Gus van Sant starring one of the leads from the filmmaker's best known film, "Good Will Hunting." That would be Matt Damon who plays a natural gas company "closer" who arrives in small towns -- accompanied by his business partner (the always great Frances McDormand) -- and easily convinces the locals to sell off their rights to fracking access in exchange for potentially quite lucrative cash windfalls.

But a trip to his latest community is anything but a slam dunk, thanks to men of vastly different generations -- Hal Holbrook playing the veteran resident who's going to stand his ground and John Krasinski playing an environmentalist determined to warn the locals about the dangers of such energy capture. Somewhat amazingly -- especially considering how such message films usually play out -- the script by Damon and Krasinski is fairly even-sided.

Those opposed to fracking bring up valid points about the potential dangers and environmental disasters such work could create. At the same time, Damon's character -- speaking from personal experience growing up in a place similar to all of those he travels to -- tries to emphasize that most small towns are dying and if the largest employer decides to pull up their business roots, that would be a death blow to all involved. Accordingly, he tries to stress the importance of taking the money and running while it's being dangled in front of them.

And thus the 106-some minute film plays out, with both sides doing what they can to convince the undecided folks about which way is correct. While all of that might sound about as much fun as listening to people argue about politics and/or religion, the filmmakers mostly take a fairly light approach to such matters, and infuse the film with enough humor to keep the story and its characters from getting too ugly and/or overbearing.

I was surprised by the fairly even-keeled approach and was about to give the filmmakers complete kudos for playing this pretty much down the middle, only to have a very late in the third act revelation ruin the tactic. While that does play into what could very well happen in real life -- and thus show off the extent to which people and corporations will go to protect their interests -- it suddenly swings the film in one specific direction rather than allow the viewer to come to his or her own conclusion and ponder what was presented.

Thankfully, that's far from enough to ruin what precedes it as the film has plenty of smarts, good writing and solid performances to win over most everyone. Damon and McDormand, in particular, have great working chemistry together (and really benefit from the funny and witty script), while another type of chemistry starts to bubble up between him and the local woman played by Rosemarie DeWitt, with Krasinski's character then turning that into a potential budding love triangle. And it's always great to see Holbrook in anything, and he adds a nice layer of wisdom to the material in play.

Aside from that aforementioned twist near the end of the film, I found the offering enjoyable, entertaining and surprisingly fair in terms of presenting believable if opposing sides to a controversial topic. If only the filmmakers had resisted the temptation to give in and turn various shades of gray into definite black and white. "Promised Land" rates as a 7 out of 10.




Reviewed November 29, 2013 / Posted January 4, 2013


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