Thursday, January 3, 2013

Promised Land (2012): A Review


I'm Fracking Matt Damon...

People forget that Barack Obama lost the Pennsylvania Democratic primary in 2008.  Part of that loss stemmed from a Freudian slip where he talked about how the voters he wasn't reaching were "bitter" and who "cling to their guns and religion" and thus, wouldn't vote for him.  I thought upon that infamous turn of phrase while watching Promised Land in that the same people the then-Senator spoke of so dismissively are the same people Matt Damon and John Krasinski for some reason also think little of, if one were to judge by the final product.   Promised Land is an embarrassment to those who agree with the film's position on the subject it covers, not so much as for its blatant bias but for how clumsy, even downright idiotic the characters turn out to be.

Steve Butler (Damon) is an up-and-coming salesman for a major natural gas company.  He is a master salesman, one who has the leg up on everyone else because he "knows" these people.  He was one of them, hailing from Iowa.  Steve's motives are haunted by when the Caterpillar factory closed in his hometown and basically shut the town down.  He goes to Pennsylvania with his partner, Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand), to seek out the rights to the natural gas under the various farmer's property and draw it out via "fracking", a method of drawing natural gas buried deep in the ground out. 

All is going well with Steve and Sue here in our little town, until two people get in the way.  The first one is Frank Yates (Hal Holbrooke), a science teacher who points out that fracking will kill us all.  The second is Dustin Noble (Krasinski), an environmental activist who also speaks the metaphorical local language.  His farm in Nebraska was destroyed by fracking, he says, with all the cows going belly up (pun intended).  Steve now finds opposition to his plans, which will be put to a vote.

In that time Steve keeps trying to outwit Noble, a difficult task given how fickle our denizens are.  Even a much-vaunted (and quickly-planned) town fair goes bust (God, apparently, is also against fracking).  As it stands, Steve has an epiphany about his job, helped by a teacher, Alice (Rosemary DeWitt) with whom he's fallen for (and who's also a bit enchanted by Dustin as well). 

We then get a "shocking twist" so pathetically moronic, even downright looney, that all but seals the deal for both Steve realizing his way has been wrong AND for Promised Land being a barbarically stupid, even insulting movie for anyone not as fiercely anti-fracking as either Will Hunting and Jim Halpert.

However, even before the end of Promised Land, the movie was already sinking under its self-righteous intentions/pretensions.  Leaving aside the subject matter and how it's treated, Promised Land had plot points and character actions that flat-out didn't make any sense. 

For example, we're told that Steve is a hot-shot at his job, one who just got promoted to Vice President of Land Management.  This seeking-out of the lease rights should then be simple and easy for Butler, both because he's done this several times and because he too is a man of the earth.  However, once he meets up with the thinnest of opposition, especially by Noble's "aw-shucks" manner, Butler all but has a nervous breakdown.  It is impossible to accept that Steve would have his self-confidence shattered so badly by ONE old man and ONE environmentalist sweeping in to raise objections.  In the real world, Butler would have already dealt with opposition and questions, and would have faced off against more powerful adversaries.  However, it doesn't appear that Steve has ever won a high school debate given how quickly this (admittedly much taller but thinner) man rattles him.

Also, Krasinski's Noble was coming off as rather smug in his hyper-confidence that he had this thing in the bag.  In short order the rubes in western Pennsylvania were quickly won over by Noble, with his baseball cap and sense of confidence in the rightness of his cause.  They even allowed him to make an anti-fracking presentation to elementary school students.  Again, I didn't believe that would happen: not only would it be clearly biased for one side but it runs the risk of making things rather simplistic.

I digress to wonder if a town hall meeting AND vote is held at the local high school gymnasium, would they really allow the basketball team to either practice or PLAY right before or after said meeting or election?  I was beginning to wonder whether anyone involved in Promised Land had ever BEEN to a small town, let alone know how they functioned.

Despite all claims to the contrary, there is a certain sense of arrogance when it comes to Krasinski and Damon's take on the good folks of Pennsylvania (with Dave Eggers contributing the story).  It is laughable the lengths that Promised Land takes to insult not just the characters but the audience.  Butler is we're told the most successful salesman because he is of the same stock the Pennsylvania farmers are, but if that's the case, does he really need to go through an elaborate show of trying to "look like a native", with the plaid shirts and run-down car Steve and Sue rent?  It should come easily to him to discuss matters with these people, so why does he have to wear clothes not his own and hit the bars to 'blend' in?  Perhaps in Krasinski and Damon's world, these farmers wouldn't relate to people wearing suits and driving anything that wasn't a pickup.  No, a great show has to be made that Butler AND Noble are "one of us".

As a side note, for someone who graduated from Brown with a degree in theater arts, graduating as a playwright, Krasinski has a shockingly clumsy writing manner.  His character's name of Dustin Noble has no subtlety whatsoever: Dust...from the Earth, Noble...speaks for itself, and the subservient Butler's...well, read what you will in that.

We also see with our Hollywood Intellectuals that their near-contempt for the people they insist they are trying to help comes through again and again.  First, WHY would such an evil corporation such as Global allow Sue and Steve to set up a town fair all by themselves?  Second, WHY would said evil corporation think that some ponies and cotton candy would dissuade a town deep in the thralls of our everyman Noble?  Third, WHY would said evil corporation not have a ready rebuttal against this one environmentalist that blew in out of nowhere?        

You think HE'S intimidating?
Perhaps that all could be forgiven, but if one looks at Krasinski and Damon's screenplay, they not only fail to create intelligent characters (with the exception of Sue, who unlike Steve appears to know what she is doing, thus making the audience wonder why SHE wasn't chosen instead of our bumbling Butler), but not the final "shocking" twist that just is plain stupid.  Normally, I don't give out the "twists" in a story, but here I delight in doing so: Dustin Noble works for Global.  He's really a natural gas employee masquerading as this down-home environmentalist in order to paint the environmentalists ultimately as liars so as to clear the company to win the election.

It all smacks of some unhinged view of how the world works, and it all seems rather elaborate even for an evil corporation like Global Resources.  It also robs Promised Land of what Krasinski and Damon were clearly aiming for: the evolution of Steve Butler.  This 'twist' is suppose to show Steve just how far the evil corporation will go to win, but instead it really just makes Steve look like a fool in so many ways.  It shows the evil corporation doesn't trust their new Vice President of Land Management (and I'd argue they should have made Sue the V.P.), and it also makes one wonder WHY they'd go through such lengths when before Noble only some old man who didn't even have the support of the whole community was their only (easily dealt-with) opposition. 

If I have to say anything positive about Promised Land, I can say it's pretty to look at.

You have character development that doesn't (poor DeWitt stuck as the 'love interest' when no real love is shown and just seems thrown in there to HAVE a love interest), you have a ridiculous plot twist that makes everything that had come before rather silly, and you have terrible, even embarrassing and cliched moments (Butler's "I Have Sinned Against You, My Lord"-type confession to the folks) that turns the film into a joke.

As noble (pun definitely intended) as their intentions are, Promised Land does several things wrong.  It thinks it's far more clever than it actually is.  It hits us with cliches and cardboard characters who make illogical decisions not grounded (no pun intended) in anything close to reality. It doesn't make its case that fracking is bad (apart from the fact that two actors think it is) nor does it allow the human moments and the main character's turn to come naturally but by force.

Here it is: John Burke Krasinski and Matthew Paige Damon, whatever you're selling, I ain't buying.

DECISION: D-                    

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