Sunday, January 6, 2013

Promised Land: Rock-solid advocacy cinema

Promised Land (2012) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: R, for profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.9.13

Matt Damon hasn’t written many scripts since 1997’s Good Will Hunting, his Academy Award-winning debut effort with Ben Affleck. His prudence is understandable; where does one go, from up?

Hoping to undo the doubts raised by a local farmer who warns that fracking is anything
but a safe means of obtaining "clean" natural gas, Steve Butler (Matt Damon) takes
the microphone during a McKinley town meeting. Unfortunately, his usual smooth
patter will fail him a bit here, leading to a divided community ... and displeasure on the
part of Steve's corporate bosses.
Good Will Hunting was directed by Gus Van Sant; no surprise, then, that they collaborated on Damon’s next script, 2002’s little-seen (with good cause) Gerry.

Perhaps chastened by that experience, Damon put his word processor in the closet for a decade, while crafting an impressive acting career as both action hero — the Bourne series — and overall international film star.

But writers never quit; telling stories is in their blood. No doubt Damon was waiting for just the right property, and he certainly got it with Promised Land. Once again under Van Sant’s capable guidance, this captivating drama gets its juice from well-crafted characters, tart dialogue, a solid ensemble cast and a hot-button scenario ripped from real-world headlines.

Damon shares scripting duties with John Krasinski, a rising film star making good on the promise he has shown for so many years, on television’s The Office. Krasinski isn’t known as a writer — unless once includes 2009’s best-forgotten Brief Interviews with Hideous Men — but he certainly rises to the occasion here. He and Damon have deftly adapted a story by Dave Eggers, who burst on the scene a few years ago, with scripts for Away We Go and Where the Wild Things Are.

Good screenplays get their power from many elements. It’s not enough to craft piquant one-liners; they must be true to a well constructed plot. (They also must be delivered well by actors who understand how to maximize the impact of crisply timed dialogue, and that’s where we credit Van Sant.) The characters themselves must be interesting, efficiently sketched and cleverly integrated with all the other players on stage. We must care about them, either as good guys or bad guys.

Most of all, they must change — mature, regress, whatever — as a result of what happens to them.

A tall order all around.

Factor in a desire to be relevant — to indict a topic of the day — and most writers fail to juggle all those fragile eggs.

Damon and Krasinski, in welcome contrast, never err. Even casual exchanges of dialogue have consequences; watch for the payoff on a passing reference to a little girl selling lemonade outside a high school gymnasium. Goodness, it could be argued that she carries the moral weight of the entire film. That is sharp scripting.

Damon and Frances McDormand star as Steve Butler and Sue Thomason, seasoned corporate “handlers” for a multi-billion-dollar energy titan dubbed Global Crosspower Solutions. Steve and Sue are sent into distressed small towns in order to persuade cash-strapped residents to lease the drilling rights of their farms.

Steve and Sue have built a reputation for sealing deals rapidly, and with contracts far less expensive — which is to say, less generous to townsfolk — than other Global teams. The pitch is a well-honed blend of smooth talk, vague promises, tantalizing references to additional financial windfalls for the owners of “well-placed” farms ... and the occasional bribe, of necessity.

They make a great team: Steve is a sympathetic former farm boy who watched his own home town dry up and blow away when the only local industry closed; Sue is a dedicated soccer mom who advocates the value of the superior schools that can be built with the leasing payments.

Left unspoken — but certainly known to these advance scouts, and equally obvious to us — is the fact that ground never will be broken on such schools, because every cent will be devoured by the financial institutions propping up everybody’s over-mortgaged farmland.

Left unspoken, as well, is the fact that the natural gas which Global desires — the resource repeatedly championed by Steve and Sue as “clean energy” — will be extracted from the shale rock beneath everybody’s farm via hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” (a word they’re careful to avoid).

The story begins as Steve and Sue land in McKinley, a small farmland community in a never-specified state. (Van Sant shot the film in western Pennsylvania.) That detail doesn’t matter; the American heartland — and the West Coast — are laden with such towns. The Global raiders (let’s call a spade a spade) expect a slam-dunk like all the others; McKinley is economically distressed, its many farmers clinging by their fingernails to property that has been in their families for generations.

But something unexpected happens this time: a stirring of pride, wariness ... and bad timing. Local high school science teacher Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook) leads the resistance, and he finds it easy to stall the Global engine; fracking has become the evil term du jour, and the Internet is laden with well-documented stories of farmland turned poisonous by the chemical brew employed during the process. Global’s behavior, so smoothly kept under the radar until now, is being dragged into unforgiving sunlight like a vampire hauled from its coffin.

Although Steve and Sue already have numerous signatures on contracts, having preyed on local anxiety, this apparent victory morphs into a mirage when Yates encourages his McKinley neighbors to delay their collective decision, pending a vote. In three weeks.

Needless to say, Global isn’t happy about the delay. Adding to Steve’s agitation, he assumes — quite rightly — that his long-awaited promotion will evaporate just as rapidly, should McKinley take itself out of play.

To make matters even worse, another newcomer blows into town: Dustin Noble (Krasinski), a slick environmental activist bearing ghastly photos of dead cows and stories of tainted water supplies.

What shapes into a massive battle for McKinley’s soul unfolds subtly, almost delicately, via small encounters. We get the first skirmish quickly, as Steve and Sue stock up on “local duds” at a general store displaying a sign that advertises “Gas, Groceries, Guns and Guitars.” We can’t help chuckling, more so as McDormand’s tart-tongued Sue mocks the place; we share her sense of superiority.

The chuckles die seconds later, once we meet the store’s owner — Titus Welliver, as Rob — an obviously intelligent, if pragmatic fellow who isn’t about to tolerate smugness from big-city invaders ... particularly those with an agenda. And yet Rob isn’t “the enemy,” particularly when he takes a shine to Sue. Welliver’s carefully nuanced Rob is but the first of the many McKinley citizens who defy expectations: ours, and Steve’s.

Holbrook’s Frank Yates is another example. Although clearly hostile to Global’s slick steamroller approach, he doesn’t blame Steve and Sue per se; indeed, he could use the money as much as anybody else. Frank merely voices the doubts that need to be raised: Is the tantalizing short-term offer of cash in hand worth the long-term risk of seeing one’s heritage destroyed ... individually, locally and nationally?

Corporations are notorious for having no soul; any appeals to conscience must be made to foot-soldiers such as Steve and Sue.

Holbrook delivers a finely shaded performance worthy of a Norman Rockwell painting, but with a modern twist: Frank Yates isn’t merely a veteran farm owner, he’s also a highly respected former scientist filling his retirement years as a school teacher. We ache upon hearing his own personal “solution” to the Hobson’s Choice being offered by Global.

Rosemarie DeWitt shines as Alice, an effervescent grade school teacher who catches Steve’s eye — and vice versa — until getting distracted by the far more boisterously charming Dustin.

Lucas Black also makes a strong impression as a naïve and gullible young farmer who swallows Steve’s patter — hook, line and sinker — and then buys an expensive new sports car on the “promise” of money to come. It’s a heartbreaking moment made even more powerful by Black’s trusting gaze.

McDormand’s dry delivery is a hoot, her critical sidelong glances to die for. We’re never quite sure whether Sue actually has a heart; she clearly plays a role in public, surrounding by McKinley residents, yet she also keeps in loving touch with her son, via Skype, when concealed behind the closed door of her motel room. The truth undoubtedly resides in her view that, at the end of each day, what she and Steve do is a job. Just a job.

Krasinski’s Dustin is a force of nature: a seductive, silver-tongued emissary who hearkens back to the glib, glad-handing antics of Robert Preston, in The Music Man. Despite being an outgunned underdog, Dustin instinctively understands how best to reach these people, thanks to a cocksure attitude that infuriates Steve more with each passing day.

Despite the overwhelming odds, Dustin is so sure of himself — Krasinski makes him so dedicated, so earnest — that we can’t help cheering his every small success.

But that’s the question, of course: Even if Dustin succeeds, is that good news for McKinley? Truly? Even on a national scale, are the risks of fracking worse than our continued reliance on coal and oil, both of which have their own serious drawbacks?

Although the nominal star, Damon generously shares the spotlight with all his fellow actors. His handling of Steve is another in a recent line of ethically challenged businessmen in the mold of George Clooney’s Ryan Bingham, from 2009’s Up in the Air: guys who, push come to shove, may not be quite as callous as they’d like to believe.

Damon has numerous standout scenes, both kind and ruthless. Best of the latter comes during a brutally frank conversation with a local civic leader (Ken Strunk) who seeks financial “incentive” to persuade his town to accept Global’s offer. Alternatively, Damon turns playful during his flirtatious encounters with DeWitt’s Alice, their verbal sparring genuinely cute.

“I’m not a bad guy,” he tells her repeatedly, and we begin to wonder whether he’s trying to persuade her ... or himself.

Its merits as a well-crafted drama notwithstanding, this film has become a lightning rod for its unapologetically critical assault on fracking. Pundits and even some critics are “reviewing” only the message, with a predictable divide between red and blue states, liberals and conservatives. The outrage expressed by the Marcellus Shale Coalition, as just one example, is so laughably strident that it strays into “The lady doth protest too much” territory.

No question: This is advocacy cinema. That said, I remain impressed by a compelling work of art that entertains while encouraging debate on a topic that, yes, could use a helluva lot more exposure.

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