This heartland tale of fracking, farming and fibbing drills down on its message … but does it strike oil?
Steve Butler understands small-town ways. He may be a mover and a shaker with a natural gas leasing company now, but he hasn't lost touch with his roots. And that's really what makes him so good at his job. You see, Steve has his own story, his own experience of seeing a small middle-American hometown shrivel up and blow away. He knows the pain, the feelings of desperation.
So when he drives into a tiny farm town with his sales partner Sue, he's certain that they're bringing something akin to hope to the people living there. Sure, he and Sue have to be pitchmen. They put on the boots and flannel. They joke and shuffle and speak the local lingo. They roll out the same old spiel of promised riches and new beginnings. But leasing drilling rights from the owners of these dying farms is at least a way to give the people a little something to avoid an otherwise inevitable financial ruin.
He's not a bad guy.
Of course, there are those towns like McKinley. It seemed like a burg that was going to easily tumble for their talk at first. The town official took his pittance of a bribe and fell in line. Folks were eager to cash in. Then some old teacher had to stand up at the community meeting and ramble on about the dangers of fracking: the injected chemicals, the poisoned water table, the court cases.
And an environmental activist blows into town—chummying up to the locals and buyin' 'em beer. Before you know it everybody's talking about dead cows and fetid fields.
Don't these yokels understand? Steve's on their side!
Even though Steve and Sue are quickly established as the "big corporation" bad guys, they're still shown to have their virtues. Sue is a loving mom. Steve is a nice and earnest guy who seems to really believe he can help the townspeople he encounters. [Spoiler Warning] In fact, he follows that earnestness to the point of quitting his job when he discovers some dishonest corporate shenanigans that his company (Global Crosspower Solutions) has pulled.
Frank, a retired big-tech guy who teaches at the local school, also shows his earnest stripes. He raises questions about the dangers of the hydraulic fracturing process not to gain attention but because he truly wants to protect his community.
Some locals lend Steve a hand setting up a fair.
On open mic night at the town bar, Sue stands up and haltingly sings the Hank Williams song "I Saw the Light," including the lyrics, "I wandered so aimless, life filled with sin/I wouldn't let my dear Savior in/Then Jesus came like a stranger in the night/Praise the Lord, I saw the light."
Steve has several flirting interactions with Alice, a grade school teacher he meets at the bar. And he jokes about being a stripper. He wakes up on her couch after getting drunk, and while he thinks he might have slept wtih her the night before, she assures him he didn't. Later, Alice and the environmental activist Dustin kiss in the hallway of her school—and the implication is that they had been even more intimate the night before.
In the midst of a heated argument, an inebriated local punches Steve in the face. Dustin makes a number of flyers and posters sporting images of cow carcasses.
Crude or Profane Language
About 25 f-words and 20 s-words mix in with multiple uses of "d‑‑n," "a‑‑," "h‑‑‑" and "b‑‑ch." God's and Jesus' names are abused around 20 times total (God's combined with "d‑‑n" four or five times). Sue flips her middle finger at someone.
Drug and Alcohol Content
According to this film, the struggling farmers of middle America are a hard-drinking lot. We see many of the townsfolk drowning their woes in beer and hard liquor at the bar. Several end up staggeringly drunk, including Steve. Steve is drawn into a bar game called "Absolute Madness" where he's throws back eight shots in quick succession. The next morning he wakes with no memory of the evening and a blazing hangover. Alice tells him he kissed her just before he threw up. Steve and Sue drink wine with dinner at Frank's house.
Other Negative Elements
Steve appears to know he's lying when he promises property owners that they'll make millions from their lease to his company. And he hands out a bribe to grease the town's wheels the bit. We eventually find out that Global pulled a big scam on the community in order to sway their opinions. But the locals aren't wholly unfamiliar with scams; it turns out that the Absolute Madness drinking game is regularly pulled on passing businessmen to get them drunk enough to empty their wallets.
That's just part of the sociopolitical puzzle too. Even though the movie's creators see the small-town heartland of America as a place of precious beauty, they don't seem to see the residents of that slice of the country with the same loving eye—assigning to them "qualities" such as being greedy, manipulative, gulible and disgruntled; they're generally heavy drinkers and foul-mouthed.
Every piece of drama has some kind of message it wants to convey or question it wants to raise. Even those pieces that don't seem like they do. But some are more obviously deliberate about things than others. And Promised Land (written by co-stars Matt Damon and John Krasinski) knows exactly what it wants to sell in pretty much exactly the same way Steve Butler knows what he needs to sell every time he hits a new town.
The film never challenges the supposition that gas, oil and coal industries are inherently more dangerous and destructive than they're worth. But short of reporting that, or futilely trying to unilaterally settle the natural gas fracking debate, I'll conclude this review by looking at how this film's message is delivered, rather than obsessing over what message it's delivering:
There's a key moment when the environmental activist, Dustin, visits a middle school classroom to try to explain his view of things to the farming community's kids. He colorfully weaves a tale of big city oil and gas companies that want to come in and drill for gas under their farms through some "crazy sounding thing they call fracking." The cheery visitor animatedly illustrates through the use of a miniaturized model of a farm—complete with cute little cows and chickens. He sprinkles the homey scene with a toxic mixture of chemicals and lights it on fire. And he dangles the classroom turtle over the tiny blazing barnyard.
His point is driven home, to say the least. Both to the kids and to moviegoers.
It's a bully pulpit scene that's presented with a purposeful over-the-top flair. But, in truth, Promised Land steadfastly preaches its cause throughout its 106-minute running time, using that same sledgehammer approach. And the twist at the end only ups the weight of the hammer. Instead of burning farms and threatened turtles, it uses sweeping vistas of beautiful countryside juxtaposed against teary-eyed speeches about a dying heartland. It tells us of the heartless entities that want to "scorch the earth." And it adds one-dimensional "color" with R-rated obscenities and hard drinking.