'Promised Land' Review: Anti-Fracking Propaganda Gussied Up as Oscar Bait

'Promised Land' Review: Anti-Fracking Propaganda Gussied Up as Oscar Bait

Knee-jerk ideology has poisoned the creative wells of two of Hollywood’s more talented stars.

“Promised Land,” an anti-fracking propaganda film dressed up as Oscar-season fare, re-teams “Good Will Hunting” star Matt Damon with director Gus Van Sant. Neither can salvage a story that exists solely to demonize natural gas companies and the process of fracking.

Sure, Van Sant’s camera captures some quaint landscapes, and Damon remains a rigorously engaged actor. But who could push past a story top heavy with silly twists, undernourished subplots and a hero without a clue as to why his enemies hate his handiwork?

What’s most surprising is that you’ll leave the theater knowing little more about the pros and cons of fracking than when you entered.

“Promised Land,” co-financed by forces eager to squash new American-based energy sources, casts Damon as a salesman climbing the corporate ladder at a billion-dollar natural gas firm. Steve is sent to a rural Pennsylvania town, one of many dying in our flailing economy, to secure drilling permit rights for farm land loaded with shale. The company will use the controversial process of fracking to dig deep into the shale deposits to line its corporate coffers and throw much needed cash to the land owners. Steve’s co-worker (Frances McDormand, far too good for such material) is on hand to help seal the deal.

The plan seems assured until a local teacher (Hal Holbrook) and an environmental activist (John Krasinski) start convincing the locals how bad fracking is for the environment.

The film’s script, written by Damon and Krasinsky, lacks courage, brains and logic. Damon’s character is a star businessman, a guy who can put the squeeze on a mayor one minute and then sweet talk the locals to sign any piece of paper in his pocket the next. Yet when confronted with a green-certified fracking critic he practically breaks down and cries like a baby.

Wouldn’t a fracking salesman be up on both the alleged criticisms of his industry as well as the best ways to shred his opponents’ arguments? Not here. And didn’t Steve expect at least some resistance to his proposal? That there Google has plenty of anti-fracking videos even the hayseeds he’s dealing with can peruse.

Things get uglier when Krasinski’s character makes a move on the purty teacher (Rosemarie DeWitt) Steve courts by getting drunk and passing out on her couch.

Van Sant and co. aren’t subtle about their intentions with “Promised Land.” The energy company here is depicted as ruthless, its workers spit out the same tired jokes and sales pitches. The locals are given little complexity. Either they’re angry at Steve for potentially ruining their land, eager to spend the money he’s promising to give them or simply pawns swayed by a town fair or emotionally charged poster.

At one point, a banner with the natural gas company logo flutters and falls on Steve’s car windshield as a storm washes away his plans to win the townsfolk over. If only we could decode what the symbolism means.

“Promised Land” leaves us with a twist so hackneyed it should have been laughed out of the first table read. Instead, it arrives to make sure we don’t forget the messages the film has been screaming at us from the opening sequence. Fracking bad. Big business very bad. And movies based on pure ideology, not sturdy storytelling, are even worse.