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July 13, 2014
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Fracking film gets mixed reviews; Multiple spoiler alerts for ‘Promised Land’

Matt Damon
Contributed photo


The broad outlines of the film “Promised Land” could have been found in numerous towns in the region in recent times. A landman, in the person of Steve Butler (played by Matt Damon), turns up in a struggling Pennsylvania farm town trying to convince local landowners to sign gas leases.

That might have been an easy task were it not for an outsider environmentalist named Dustin Noble, played by John Krasinski, who turns up to work against Butler’s goal, not to mention the efforts of a local teacher Frank Yates, played by Hal Holbrook.

Butler also has a partner, played by Frances McDormand, and there’s a love interest, played by Rosemarie DeWitt, who veers from the landman to the environmentalist.

Here’s what those who follow the battle over hydraulic fracturing will want to know: does the movie make the drilling industry look bad? The answer is, it depends on whom you ask.

In a review published in The Idaho Statesman, Cary Darling writes, “You don’t have to know much more than the most rudimentary synopsis—fracking for natural gas comes to an impoverished Pennsylvania farming community, trouble ensues—to know where it’s going from start to finish. Spoiler alert: Energy companies aren’t your friend, according to ‘Promised Land.’”

But an assessment of the movie written by Tom Wilbur, a journalist who has been covering fracking in Pennsylvania for several years and authored the book, “Under the Surface: Fracking, Fortunes, and the Fate of the Marcellus Shale,” wrote, “The movie is not, despite what some hope and others fear, a case against shale gas development in general or fracking in particular.”

Then there’s the question of whether “Promised Land” works as a film. It has received some fairly positive reviews, but nearly all of them mention a “twist” in the third act that comes across as a bit over the top.

Rodrigo Perez, in blogs.indiewire.com, writes “(slight **spoiler alert**) in an unfortunate third-act decision—the environmentalist is discredited and then a shadier corporate plot is revealed—degrades the narrative, and the moral shades of gray turn black and white. This is, of course, to force Butler’s hand, show him that his convictions are built on lies, but the screenplay really overtips itself here.”

Andrew C. Revkin, in a review titled “The Unfulfilled Promise of ‘Promised Land’ in The New York Times blog writes, “Unfortunately, any prospects of a compelling denouement evaporate in the film’s final act, when the plot veers cartoonishly, doing for the gas industry what John Grisham has long done for big law firms.”

Wilbur was not so harsh, and said his favorite scene was between the landman and a struggling farmer. “As they sit across the kitchen table, the farmer—a hardworking and earnest family man struggling to preserve his way of life against the flow of economic forces—clearly knows why Butler has come, and he implores Butler to say what he wants to hear. Butler, a little surprised at how easy this all is, obliges: ‘You could be a millionaire.’ The farmer’s reaction is what I find compelling. No words, but only a look of humble sincerity and raw hope that I found heart rending.”

“Promised Land” opened in New York, Los Angeles and a few other cities on December 28, and opens nationwide on January 4.