Saturday, January 19, 2013

'Promised Land' a well acted message film

"Promised Land" is not a religious film, but the elusion of the title to a holy and sacred place is intentional as the film is an unapologetically earnest case against the practice of fracking, the process of extracting natural gas from rock buried deep in the ground.

Written by its stars Matt Damon and John Krasinski and directed by Gus Van Sant, "Promised Land" will be dismissed by many as nothing more than liberal propaganda. You wouldn't be entirely wrong in calling it that. This is a movie that clearly has a message and doesn't pretend to be anything that it isn't. This is an issue movie and while it is, at times, a bit preachy it is well acted and well written with a sly sense of humor.

Damon and Frances McDormand are representatives of a large natural gas company sent into a small, impoverished farm town to lease the townspeople's land for drilling. What, at first, is an easy sell becomes complicated when a high school science teacher (Hal Holbrook) raises issues about the fracking process and an environmentalist (Krasinski) comes to town to make sure Damon and McDormand don't succeed.

The tone of film recalls the work of Frank Capra, albeit it with some coarser language. All the Capraesque motifs are in place: an idealized view of small town living, a corporation being presented as corrupt and evil, and a good-hearted protagonist, who learns what is most important in life.

Damon's Steve Butler is a bit more complex though than the traditional Capra hero. Steve is a good man, but he is sometimes difficult to like as he has a tendency of being smug and condescending. He truly believes he knows what is best for the people of the town and so is quick to become flustered, dismissive or snide when confronted with an opposing view.

At the same time, he is genuine in wanting to help small town America as he saw his own home town fall apart when times became economically challenging. He can be warm and quick witted especially when flirting and bantering with a local teacher (Rosemarie DeWitt).

The arc that Steve goes through from a company man towing the line to someone who questions his employer's methods is a familiar one. Damon is such a strong actor though he makes Steve's transformation ring true and feel unforced.

His performance always feels present and in the moment. Damon has always been a very quiet, controlled and expressive actor. He is not a showy performer rather he is the kind of actor who doesn't seem like he is acting at all. His innate likability, even when he is saying or doing unlikable things, makes a viewer follow him anywhere.

Krasinski brings the same charm and wit that helped make him so endearing as Jim on TV's "The Office." He has several snarky verbal battles with Damon that are good for a laugh, but he is also effective in a monologue about how his family lost their farm to the lasting effects of fracking.

There's an over confidence to Krasinski's character though that is slightly off putting and there's a final reveal of his character that is surprising. It puts a different shading on his entire performance.

McDormand helps to add a healthy dose of humor to the film. She is a company woman through and through who is willing to do anything to win over the townspeople including singing at an open mic night. McDormand's character isn't painted as completely cold though and she has a nice chemistry with Titus Welliver as a supportive shop owner (who sells guns, gas, groceries and guitars).

Damon and Krasinski's script clearly leans more towards to the anti-fracking position, but does present both sides of the issue. Fracking does allow for the release of natural gas, a cleaner form of fuel, and the leases do inject money into towns that are financially struggling. On the negative side though there is the chance of destroying the surrounding environment.

The film isn't so heavy-handed as to saying that fracking is inherently wrong, but that states there is no guarantee that the process will be 100 percent safe.

Fracking is a complex issue and "Promised Land" doesn't really uncomplicate it, but it does work at starting a dialogue. It also succeeds as a showcase for Damon and Krasinski both as actors and writers. The script has a good voice and is often quite funny and clever, which helps make the film's message go down much easier.

"Promised Land" is playing at the Majestic Theatre at the Conway Cafe in Conway Village.

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