Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Promised Land (15)

A film can be many things - it can be funny, serious, moving, message-laden, big dumb fun - but the one thing it has to be, above everything else, is entertaining.

Not necessarily in the 'take me on a wild ride' sense, but in the sense that you are enjoying the experience of watching the performances and story they are attempting to bring to life. That's vital. Take Gangster Squad, for example. Dumb as nuts, but it was fun. Or the latest Die Hard - not a brain cell to its name, but stuff goes boom and bang, we go home happy.

Which brings me to Promised Land.

Now, I wanted to really love this film. The story of a man trying to sell the controversial fracking for shale gas to a small, broke town in middle America which has caused quite an amusing storm among the pro-fracking lobby. Or gas companies, as some people call them.

The environmentalist in me wanted to see what was said about process, what arguments were being put across, see what producer/co-writer/star Matt Damon had to say about the whole shitstorm. Granted I was wary - Promised Land had a troubled gestation, with Gus Van Sant being brought in to direct at the last minute when Damon was suddenly delayed by another project, threatening Land's existence.

Which I'm not so sure would have been a bad thing.

I know Damon had said this wasn't really a story about fracking, it was a story about a guy going back to his roots kinda-thing, but the subject is so contentious that to bring it into the story throws the focus off. The events used to frame the story become the story, and instead of watching a man discover who he really is, we're watching big business eat the world. Which is a shame.

Not that framing the story a different way would have helped much, I fear. The ponderous road to Damascus Damon has put himself on takes so long to develop that you're past caring by the time he takes a stand for what he's discovered he believes in. Hints are dropped about his own mid-west heritage, but they're buried in amongst a chase for the gas against an environmentalist who's also after the girl (oh, yeah, there's a girl. 'Cos we needed another thread to get tangled up in).

Damon himself is fine. Not on top of his game, but doing a fine job - even if his character is clueless as to the machinations of the big business that has just given him a big promotion, or seemingly aware of the downside of fracking he's so keen to downplay. It doesn't feel like a lot of effort went into this part of the script.

A fact that is highlighted when Frances McDormand joins the party as Damon's colleague. It immediately feels like a real character has arrived, like someone is putting some effort in. Same with John Krasinski, who neatly steps out of the shadow of The Office (American version) to play a smooth-talking environmental counter-argument to Damon's hard-selling gas man.

Which is another problem with Damon's character. Steve (for 'tis he) is the guy who gets things done. Brings in gas fields under budget and on time, seemingly selling the poor saps short as he hoovers up the farmland his bosses want to exploit. Nothing about him comes across as a hard-nosed guy who can dupe the yokels. At one point he pleads to the lovely Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt doing all that is asked of her, if little else) "I am not the bad guy" - and he's right. He's not. He's a nice guy who still wears his grandpa's boots. It's a combination that doesn't quite gel.

Now, the debate about fracking is maybe best left for another day (or the end of this review if I'm feeling sufficiently ranty), but Promised Land seems so keen to have a message you're left wondering what it is. There is a point in the town bar when Damon's character has a row with some pissed-off locals about what he's trying to do to the town. He explains how the fracking will bring in the money that will change their lives - and if they don't go for it, the farms they're on will just die. And you find yourself thinking 'that's not the issue'.

And this really leapt out at me. If middle-America is facing this crisis, then the answer isn't to buy up all the farms and turn them into gas fields, the answer is to fix the food supply chain. That way, farmers will actually be able to make a living, giving us the luxury of food. Turn the farms over to the gas companies, and all that happens is we starve. We'll be warm, sure, just hungry with it.

And it was at this point I realised the main problem with Promised Land. It wants to have something to say, while also wanting to tell a love story against a bit of a corporate thriller (oh, yeah, look out for the twist. You may even shrug). And in trying to be so many things at once, it seems to have missed what could have been the real story about the crisis at the centre of America's farming heartland.

Post-Review Rantings:

OK, seems rude not to mention it - fracking...

For those of you who have been wondering what I've been banging on about for the last 10 minutes or so, fracking is the use of chemicals and water and big drills to get essential shale gas out of the ground.

Now, I get that this is a necessary evil. Oil and coal are running out, seeing as dinosaurs have stopped being kind enough to die and mulch down (any creationists reading this, I know dinosaurs don't exist. God just stopped putting the coal in the ground a while back...). I get that we need another source of fuel while we wait for people to work out how to use sunlight and wind. I get that.

But do we really need to pollute the ground and water tables while we do it?

I know the industry says it's fine and safe, but hey we've been here before with other industries. We call it Sellafield, America calls it Three-Mile Island, Russia calls it none of your business. There are risks with fracking. If you want to know more, go and watch the documentary Gasland, where a man is able to set fire to his own tap water (actually referenced in Promised Land). Yeah, that looks like a thing we all want happening...

As I say, we need a new energy source, but evidence is there to suggest fracking isn't the way to get it. For now feel free to sit on the fence, just remember fracking causes earthquakes (allegedly - Popcorn Legal Team) and your fence will fall down...

Glass of water, anyone?

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