A word of warning: It’s impossible to review Promised Land, the new movie written by Matt Damon and John Krasinski and directed by Gus Van Sant, without giving away its twist ending. Though the plot turn is fumbling in its execution, it is the slyest tactic in the movie’s clumsy crusade against fracking, the process of injecting high-pressure chemicals, water, and sand into the ground to access vast quantities of otherwise inaccessible natural gas.
Here’s the premise: Steve Butler (Damon) is a corporate salesman who draws on his rural roots to persuade farmers to sell their land to a fracking company. Recalling his childhood in a dying farm town, Steve sees natural gas as an economic savior for struggling residents — a backstory that’s supposed to add moral nuance to his character. But when Steve and his colleague Sue (Frances McDormand) arrive in a small Pennsylvania town, acquiring the land proves tougher than they expected.
Environmental activist Dustin Noble (Krasinski) shows up, handing out pictures of dead cows and telling the townspeople the tragic tale of how his Nebraska family farm was lost because the cattle drank water contaminated by fracking. But — plot twist! — Steve discovers that the supposed silo in Dustin’s pictures is in fact a lighthouse, something one does not typically find in Nebraska. It turns out the picture is actually from Louisiana, but — bigger twist!! — fracking really did kill the cow, so it’s still bad. And — biggest twist!!! — Dustin is a double agent who secretly works for the same energy corporation as Steve. By destroying the credibility of environmentalist opposition, Dustin has primed the town to do whatever the evil energy corporation wants. Meanwhile, it’s up to the increasingly conflicted Steve to Do the Right Thing.
If that sounds dry, it is. The script lacks the wit and spark of Good Will Hunting, which Damon wrote with Ben Affleck. Maybe Affleck was the real wordsmith, or maybe Krasinski should just stick to acting.
Actually, Krasinski definitely should stick to acting. Anyone who’s ever been mobbed on the city sidewalk by a green fiend with a clipboard and a zipper vest will recognize Krasinki’s smug environmentalist. And in playing both the environmental crusader and the corporate trickster, he adds unexpected charm, humor, and confidence.
Damon, on the other hand, is terrible, and given his dual role as writer and actor, he has no excuse. Promoting the movie on Jay Leno, the actor said that “my guy certainly doesn’t feel like a bad guy, and, you know, it’s up to the audience to decide if they really think he’s a bad guy.” But Damon has created a morally conflicted salesman who becomes less likable by the minute, and not just because the acting is so overwrought.
Steve wears flannel to blend into middle America but forgets to take off the sales tags. He uses a canned line to endear himself to landowners’ children when paying house visits. He bribes elected officials and tries to rip off struggling landowners. He drinks recklessly and swears constantly. He derides townspeople who won’t yield their land — “I bet you all are getting subsidy checks from the government,” he says in a bar, prompting a punch in the nose. He has a soliloquy on the merits of “f***-you money,” a sort of financial “told-you-so” that happens when one does well in the face of one’s doubters and is apparently the ultimate achievement in life — especially for rednecks with nothing to lose but their land. He’s awkwardly depressed- and defeated-looking throughout much of the film, especially in high-profile moments, such as when he stands in front of city hall or sits at the dinner table of his gracious intellectual foe. Yet viewers are supposed to believe his heart is in the right place because he feels very, very guilty.
Damon’s failures are all the more unfortunate given that the characters are all the movie has to rely on. Even Mother Jones writes that “by the film’s end, Matt Damon will have taught you precisely two things about fracking: That it’s bad for cows, and even worse for heartfelt dramatic monologues delivered by Matt Damon.”
On the pros and cons of fracking, Promised Land is pitiful. The plot rests on the assumption that fracking contaminates water. But Lisa Jackson, who just resigned as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, has reluctantly told Congress that there are no “proven cases where the fracking process itself has affected water.”
And the most thorough description of the fracking process comes courtesy of Krasinski, who douses a toy farm set with household chemicals and lights it on fire to the delight of a classroom full of kids. Then he dangles the class turtle above the flaming mess, asking the children if their pet would like to live there now. Obviously, this is alarmism in the place of argument.
The film briefly alludes to arguments in favor of fracking, but it never takes them seriously, instead introducing cameo characters whose sole purpose is to illustrate emotional points rather than scientific ones. For example, do you think fracking might help make the U.S. energy independent? Here’s a one-minute allusion to a little boy whose father fought overseas, and one character asking if that soldier’s sacrifice was worth nothing. Think fracking provides economic benefits, including hundreds of thousands of high-paying jobs, to rural communities? Well, here’s Matt Damon’s character ripping families off. And here’s a guy with a hick accent who takes the corporate check and uses it to make a down payment on a tricked-out car he clearly cannot afford. Some economic benefit!
These emotional appeals don’t stand up, and neither does the ending, at least artistically. The plot twist is nevertheless clever, though, because real-life environmentalists haven’t been honest in their arguments against fracking, either. For example, just last year, the EPA issued a preliminary report claiming that fracking contaminated water in Pavillion, Wyo. — and if the report had been accurate, it would have been an unprecedented connection. But further examination showed that the EPA’s research was incredibly flawed, and that the study had been initially released before peer review. The claim was political, not scientific, and it proved an embarrassment to the EPA. That’s no anomaly; environmental groups have been caught repeatedly using shoddy science to further their cause.
In an Alinskyite twist, Promised Land introduces the suspicion that such deception is actually the doing of Machiavellian energy giants. When you consider the track record of alarmist environmentalism, that’s classic projection, of course — but the public has proven willing to assume the worst of corporations.
Many moviegoers won’t take the time to examine the actual facts of fracking, instead taking Promised Land’s word for it that the practice hurts the environment. In reality, Big Film takes the place of Big Energy, pulling a fast one on Americans who haven’t done their homework. But, in the words of Krasinski’s character: “What else was I supposed to do? It’s not a fair fight.”
— Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.