Monday, December 31, 2012

Promised Land

"Promised Land" - not to be confused with the 1988 Jason Gedrick-Tracy Pollan film of the same name - stars Matt Damon as Steve Butler, a glib, highly successful salesman with the sinister-sounding Global Cross Power corporation, whose job entails spending a few days and nights in each of a series of blurred-together rural towns, buttering up the locals and getting them to enter land leases that allow Global to extract natural gas - via fracking - from underneath their ranches and farms. We meet Steve as he pulls into a small burg in Pennsylvania with his sometime partner Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand). She complains that the town, just a couple hours outside Pittsburgh, looks like Kentucky. "You get two hours outside any city and it looks like Kentucky," Iowa-born Steve replies.

All is going well - all always goes for Steve and Sue well when they offer poor people more money than they have hope of making with their hands, though it may be much less than what their extraction rights are actually worth - until a feisty retired engineer, now a volunteer science teacher (Hal Holbrook), interrupts Steve's canned presentation to ask some unpleasant questions about the potential health hazards associated with fracking. These dangers were explored compellingly in last year's Oscar-nominated documentary "Gasland," a much better introduction to the issue (fracking was introduced relatively late in the process of making "Promised Land," and feels like it). Not only that, a volunteer environmental activist (John Krasinski of "The Office," looking surprisingly attractive in jeans and flannel shirts) shows up, winning over many of the locals with the story of how Global killed his family's farm. Suddenly Steve and Sue are forced to extend their motel stay and wake up to the sight of "Global Go Home" pamphlets and yard signs.

The problem with "Promised Land" is the predictableness of Steve's awakened-consciousness character arc, from silver-tongued closer to abashed reformer. It's also the sort of tendentious message movie in which the locals - not much more differentiated one from another in Van Sant's worldview than the small towns themselves - all go quiet and listen raptly whenever one of the leading players takes the stage. (Like Ronald Reagan, they tend to agree with whoever talked to them last.) Along the way, though, there's a fair amount to like. Krasinski, as I mentioned, brings an appealing confidence to his greenie (with the on-the-nose name of Dustin Noble). His war of words with Damon carries over to a schoolteacher (Rosemarie DeWitt, so brilliant earlier this year in "Your Sister's Sister") to whom both men take a liking. The actors convey through their verbal oneupsmanship a fight for alpha-dog status, and the movie hints obliquely at cuckold themes that add a sexy frisson to their encounters.

The best thing about the movie, though (as is often the case) is Frances McDormand, who never allows her character to take the predestined route of Steve Butler. Hers is a supporting performance of honesty - of willful compartmentalization in service of her prioritization of her teenage son's well-being ahead of loftier moral and political concerns - in a movie that needs it. She's terrific, and "Promised Land" only really kick-starts to life when she appears.

There you have it: my 227th and last review of 2012. Over the next day or two, my movie year in review, with my choices for the best and worst in feature and documentary film and some performances worthy of special mention.

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