About Me

A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Promised Land

Even though I am a liberal, I have some mixed emotions regarding the environmental movement.

If we end up with a choice between the last seal in the arctic or the last un-fracked farm and keeping human civilization going for a while longer, we'll keep civilization and nuke the seals.

So I'm not sure what to think of Promised Land, a film directed by Gus Van Sant which has been doing the screening circuit ahead of an opening later this month.  The Variety Screening Series Q&A had producers/co-writers/stars Matt Damon and John Krasinski along with co-star Rosemarie DeWitt.

Just to back up a bit, if you're not aware, "fracking" or hydraulic fracturing is a method of getting at natural gas which involves drilling down into shale, using a combination of water and chemicals to break up the shale and release the gas that's inside of it, and then get the gas above ground.  It's made a lot of natural gas more accessible.  As with clear-cut or mountain-top coal mining it has some strong economic side effects, which are disputed by the gas companies but which I think likely do exist, where the break-up of the shale with water and chemicals either allows the gas you're trying to harvest or some chunk of the chemicals into the environment and water table.  The breaking up of the rock formations may also have risks.

As is par for the course in the history of resource mining, large mining companies need to lease land or get easements or mineral rights from people.  The leases will be one-sided, the companies will try and get things as cheaply as they can, their goal is extracting resources.

Matt Damon is playing Samuel Butler.  It's established at the start of the movie that he's very good at his job, of getting people to lease their land to his employer, because he's one of them.  He grew up in a small farming town that liked to think its existence was based on farming, but which actually centered around a Caterpillar plant in the area.  That plant closes, his farming town fast loses viability.  When he goes to one of these towns, some part of him really believes he's doing the people a service, there's no money and no future in farming and the fracking lease is the way out.  He's partnered with Frances McCormand.

When a local science teacher played by Hal Holbrook starts to turn the town against the fracking, an environmentalist played by Krasinski comes in to help Holbrook, and we get some cat-and-mouse between Damon/McDormand and Krasinski for the town's allegiance and votes at a town meeting. Damon and Krasinski also fight over the attentions of attractive local DeWitt.

So, things to like:

The film doesn't wage jihad against fracking.  I'm sure the people who wrote and directed the film aren't fans, but with Damon playing an advocate of fracking, the guy getting the signatures on the dotted line, you can't entirely discount the reality of the idea that the risks of fracking may well be better than the alternatives.  This argument is made quite cogently at the end of the movie.

The cast is mostly quite good.  Has Matt Damon ever been bad in a movie?  It's a performance of grace, subtlety, strength, it takes advantage of his likability but doesn't abuse it.  Frances McDormand could probably play the role in her sleep.  Krasinski does well.  I can't fault DeWitt for not doing much with a role that doesn't have much to offer an actress.  Most of the townspeople seem very real and very authentic.

You never know what you'll get with Gus Van Sant.  Something great like Good Will Hunting.  Something artsy and dull.  This is the good Van Sant.  Not Best Director good.  There are a few shots that stuck out in a bad way, like an establishing shot of a silo that didn't seem to connect to the actual farm being visited.  But overall, the film is nicely photographed, good acting is often helped by good directing.  The musical underscore by Danny Elfman and the songs on the soundtrack are well-chosen.

But also things not to like.

Hal Holbrook didn't work for me at all.  He seemed to be trying too hard to be an honest folksy speaker of truths, but it was like he had come straight from his performance in Into the Wild.  Just doesn't work at all.

The script relies on too many contrivances.  It manages to give a little message and wee bit of education without falling on the wrong side of the old "if you want to send a message, call Western Union" edict. But still, contrivance after contrivance, characters that are forced to places they don't really want to.

And ultimately, the movie is to be admired, but not with any passion.  And that's what's missing.  If a film is going to take on the bad guys, let it do so with passion.  I'd have liked this more if Hal Holbrook decided to channel Jack Lemmon in The China Syndrome than his own Into the Wild role. The movie isn't slow or dull, but it's never very exciting, either.

This may gain some traction in the acting categories, but on balance I don't think it will be a strong awards season contender.  But we'll see, there's certainly pedigree behind the movie, and the studio will be trying its best.

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