There is no shortage of “cause” movies in the marketplace, and this last decade has seen a dramatic increase in titles that are less intent on entertaining the audience and more concerned about convincing viewers about a particular political or environmental position. In Promised Land the anything-but-exciting sounding topic of natural gas fracking is put on the hot seat after a couple of salespeople from a resource development company pull into a small Pennsylvania town and begin explaining a life changing offer.
Steve Butler, played by Matt Damon, has just received a big promotion from the gas company he works for due to his great success persuading farmers to sign over their drilling rights. Yet when Steve begins canvassing the rural residents surrounding this picturesque community we are left with the feeling that an easier job could not possibly exist. Each landowner is saddled with debt and diminishing agricultural prospects, then along comes this guy with the best lottery ticket in town. “You could become a millionaire,” he says in a way only Damon can deliver, adding the benefits of better schools, college educations for kids and a plethora of other perks that nobody can refuse. His sales cohort Sue’s (Frances McDormand) down-to-earth looks make her as easily trustworthy as the woman next door asking for a cup of sugar.
It appears to be a slam-dunk deal until a town hall meeting reveals their first naysayer. Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook) is a science teacher at the high school and his composed concerns about contaminated water and caustic chemicals gets the residents buzzing. His comments also open the debate about prosperity versus long-term environmental consequences that we are expecting in this movie. However when the real adversary shows up, in the form of an eager environmentalist (played by co-screenwriter John Krasinski), not only does any hope of exploring both sides of the issue seem lost but it also exposes a major fracture in this movie’s construction. Our lauded protagonist appears never to have experienced such opposition. (Really? It’s just a science teacher and a lone tree hugger in a pickup truck!) Frustrated, he drowns his sorrows at the town bar, which leads to a punch in the nose from a resident who is tired of the sales pitch.
The inclusion of over a dozen needless sexual expletives, the sole reason for the movie’s R-rating in the U.S., is a curious decision by the film’s creators. Selling audiences on the idea of spending money to watch a movie about natural gas fracking is tough enough without restricting what ages can attend.
Along with Krasinski, Matt Damon co-wrote this film, which quickly reveals his obvious concern (and bias) about this method of extracting a natural resource. While there are certainly potential issues with this new technology, by the time we’re done viewing this movie we feel, like the folks in this town, that we’ve been taken for a ride rather than educated on the issue.