Culture | Take this money

Gus Van Sant’s Promised Land

One of the best aspects of Matt Damon, as a writer and an actor, is his ability to avoid those classic film clichés. The writer of Good Will Hunting (anotehr film directed by Gus Van Sant) is able to confront the audience with all kinds of truths and lies, giving us the feeling that he has lived and reacted to each one of them. Promised Land is a new drama dealing with corporate exploitation and hydraulic fracturing, a complex natural gas extraction process commonly known as “fracking.”

“I’m not selling them natural gas, I’m selling them the only natural way they have to get back,” insists Steve Butler – played by Damon – a corporate predator tasked with swaying small rural towns into leasing their land to the big drilling company, Global, in exchange for a share of the revenue. Butler’s small-town upbringing is an asset in his corporate mission, as he is able to blend into the small farming town’s social sphere.

What is interesting about Butler’s character is that he really believes in the greater good that his company can achieve, having witnessed his small hometown in Iowa thrive economically thanks to the introduction of the drilling industry. After having seen his rural town fade away due to diminishing economic relevance, Butler is convinced that rural life can no longer be sustained by agriculture alone.

Weighing economic benefits against the environmental costs is the dilemma all these small towns must eventually face. Butler’s case is well argued until everything turns sour when he becomes paranoid about an ‘environmental presence’ in town. Enter Dustin Noble, played by John Krasinski (The Office), who co-wrote the film with Damon. With the arrival of the environmentalist, Butler quickly turns from town saviour to public enemy number one, as evidence of the damaging consequences of fracking comes to light.

The fracking process involves drilling and injecting fluids into the earth at high pressures in order to fracture shale rocks deep underground, releasing valuable natural gas. With over 500,000 active wells in the U.S., each of which can be fracked up to 18 times, this makes for a grand total of 72 trillion gallons of water, mixed with 360 billion gallons of hazardous chemicals. What do these figures mean? When the shale rock is broken, the chemicals have a tendency to leak out into nearby groundwater, contaminating the supply and leading to cases of sensory or neurological damage in residents of the surrounding areas, as well as dire crop yields.

While the film has a relatively strong anti-fracking message, it remains a drama about conflicted individuals, not a documentary – for that, see Gasland. Promised Land deals with fundamental human morals, in the sense that there is no absolute good or absolute evil; the only things that truly separate people are greed and selfishness. There are greedy rural citizens who choose to buy a Lamborghini with their fracking money, as opposed to a better education for their children, just as there are corporate representatives who care little about their clients’ best interests. Butler is an honest businessman, who is trying to offer this dying way of life a chance to take advantage of the corporate world. For those of you who are skeptical about fracking, the true value of money, and the motives of big businesses, there may be gratification to be found from the rather sentimental conclusion.

However, where the film disappoints is in its use of convenient plot twists to make its stance on anti-fracking clear and obvious, which feels a little cheap. Yet any film that Damon is involved with, from Inside Job to Green Zone, tends to have a strong, hard-to-miss political and philosophical message at its core. So while Promised Land lacks the audacity of Gasland, or the compelling dramatics of Good Will Hunting, it is a sweet story softly nestled in between the two.


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