Starring Matt Damon, Frances McDormand. Written by Matt Damon, John Krasinski. Directed by Gus Van Sant. 14A. 106 min. Opens Jan. 4.
The drive to extract the natural gas located in massive shale basins beneath the continent has put countless Americans in an unenviable quandary. That’s because the same hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) process that is reversing the fortunes of moribund regions throughout the U.S.—and possibly saving the country’s whole economy—may make those communities’ groundwater a little too flammable for our liking.
Since the issue has also become urgent in Canada, the timing couldn’t be better for Promised Land, a drama that boasts the same noble intentions as many other features and docs backed by Participant Media, the indie studio founded by eBay billionaire Jeff Skoll. Expectations are also raised by the fact that the film marks the third collaboration between director Gus Van Sant and his Good Will Hunting partner Matt Damon, who co-wrote Promised Land’s script with co-star John Krasinski after some early help from Dave Eggers.
The result displays no lack of intelligence. It’s further classed-up by great performances by much of the cast, with Damon and Frances McDormand leading the charge as gas-company reps trying to woo the locals in a Pennsylvania farm town that’s ripe for exploitation.
That’s why it’s so disappointing that Promised Land is content to dole out its cards from such a carefully stacked deck, as if its makers were afraid to burden viewers with too much of the heavy thinking. For all the passion and subtlety that Damon brings to his portrait of a committed company man who’s forced to question his belief that fracking’s benefit as an economic cure-all outweighs its potential hazards, the movie is hampered by the script’s surplus of too-clever contrivances and its increasingly clumsy efforts to integrate its dramatic ambitions with its polemical ones. Though Promised Land is too finely played and presented to qualify as a total miss, the film still fails to adequately confront the challenges presented by our era’s most pressing Faustian bargain.