Some films are just too good to be tucked away in the art house market. Gus Van Sant’s Promised Land has an excellent script (from eccentric literary tyro Dave Eggers), fine performances and a solid issues-based dramatic narrative which is absolutely topical. If people go to see it they will surely come out of the cinema not only entertained but feeling fired up.
Many people will recall the documentary Gasland (made by Josh Fox in 2010). The film tackled the hot button issue of the extraction of natural gas by the process colloquially known as fracking. Because the gas deposits are miles underground the only way to release them is to inject water right down there and cause a mini earthquake which releases the gas stored in the shale. However, it is the chemicals that are pumped down with the water that can create environmental devastation when they leach back up to the surface. The one image people can remember from Gasland (which has aired on broadcast TV as well as being available on DVD) is where the residents show that you can put a lighter under the water tap and ignite a plume of flame. It is an indelible image about unintended consequences. Promised Land tackles exactly the same issues but, by placing it in the context of an engaging relationships-driven drama, manages to involve us via our hearts as well as our brains.
The film also has a solid cast. The lead is Matt Damon (who worked with Van Sant way back on Good Will Hunting of course) who plays Steve Butler. Steve is a solid company man, smooth, keen and on the rise. His job is to go round to rural farming communities (where gas deposits which may be worth millions have been located) and get the farmers to sign away their leases. Given that the global corporation is so vast (“this is a 9 billion dollar company” as one of the characters sternly reminds us), they can pay the struggling farmers more than they would ever earn in a lifetime. Most of the time they get the leases much more cheaply than that. Working alongside Steve is Sue (the ever-reliable Frances McDormand familiar to fans of the Coen Brothers’ films). She just wants the global company’s money and she is deliberately not thinking too hard about what will happen to the farmers and their land once the side effects take hold. Also turning in great cameos in the smaller parts are Rosemarie DeWitt (who was so eye-catching in Johnathan Demme’s very odd Rachel’s Getting Married), John Krasinki (who also wrote the screenplay) and Hal Holbrook (veteran of 126 films and a face you are bound to know and trust).
Promised Land has a great switch that it plays on the audience (no spoilers) and which gives the film a sense of espionage and suspense. However, it is the realistic examination of corporate and individual ethics that really gives it traction. It is not simply a matter of whether big companies are too big to be effectively regulated, or even whether they actually play fair in how they go about getting what they want. Much more problematic, is the grey areas the film intentionally spices the debate with. The rural heartland is no longer the economic engine of the nation. The proportion of people who really work the land is much less than it used to be (and most of those are subservient to corporatised agribusiness). The film is complex enough to recognise that progress is not on the side of the smallholder. The film also flirts with a certain level of corniness around these issues. The view of the hospitable hometown community is sometimes a bit hokey. But the film has to risk that because there is value in knowing your neighbours and in trying for a less greedy, more sustainable life and community. After all what is the alternative? Really.
The other issue thrown up by the film is that of whose truth gets disseminated and under what conditions. Again, in the internet age (the informed campaigners in the film get their counterintelligence from internet sources), the question of manipulations of truth and information by vested interests continue to be central to the problems of a modern democracy. After all, it is not as if the information about the danger of fracking is not out there. Those who seek to profit from it in the short term (and the gas sellers have been given more wind in their sails by the looming end of oil) are relying on people not acting to stop what they know to be wrong. It is apathy as much as ignorance or greed that has to be taken on here.
We have had precisely these debates in Australia and some examples where well-organised locals have managed to get the companies to stop and reconsider. From bumper stickers to town hall meetings, local democracy and the spread of open information are powerful factors. Long may that be the case. You don’t have to be a beanie-wearing Greenie to see that fracking is probably not the safest way to extract this valuable fuel. As the film says we can easily get out of depth with these technologies and we are being naive if we start betting what we (and our children) cannot afford to lose.
As noted, the film is issues-based but it is far more than a campaigning piece. The notes of sadness and compromise, and the recognition of the full complexities of making choices within existing constraints, is what makes this film work on a satisfying emotional level too.
If one was going to flip over into an activist’s paranoia, you would say that the film has somehow been buried by powerful interests. That is not the case but it is disappointing that it isn’t being shown at a few multiplexes where it would surely stimulate debate. Even if you can’t get to a cinema screening (or you don’t live in a big city) don’t forget this title and remember to check it out on DVD.