Director: Gus Van Sant
Promised Land is a film about the energy extraction process known as hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking” for short). This process has become a flash point for environmentalists over the past few years, and this film staring Matt Damon serves as an attack on the way in which companies enter small towns to secure the rights to being using the method. The way the film portrays the struggle between the town and the fracking company is interesting and not boiled down to a simplistic “good vs evil” narrative with unlikable company men and heroic townsfolk. Instead, a more realistic portrayal of how complex story is told, although the message of the film clearly comes through.
Matt Damon’s character and his partner, played by Frances McDormand, visit the small town to convince the people living there to sell their land so the company can begin the process of fracking. As they gain momentum, a small town hall meeting is disrupted by a high school science teacher who points out the major flaws with the practice. This sets off a series of difficulties for the company that become further aggravated by the arrival of a small environmentalist group.
The sequence of the environmentalist, played by John Krasinski, gaining popularity in the town is where the film demonstrates its aim of a populist anti-corporate message. It sometimes feels that each scene is structured in such a way as to show support by the folks in the town for the environmentalist message over the corporate attempts to begin their work. One excellent example of this is a karaoke scene where the woman from the company attempts to sign a song and is largely ignored, while the environmentalist’s performance is met with enthusiastic participation and camaraderie from the locals who frequent the bar.
This dichotomy between “the people” and the company is one which tends to be absent from major Hollywood releases, so to see it in this film was a refreshing social commentary that is often too just not present. One problem with the way it plays out in this film, however, is how the events unfold in the latter part of the film where it is revealed that the environmental presence was actually set up by the company to discredit any opposition to their efforts. It is revealed that many of the claims by the environmentalist were fabricated, and the company was able to get evidence of this to discredit him. The night before a major vote is to take place, Damon’s character learns that he was being fooled by the company into believing this as well and has a change of heart. At this major vote the next day, he reveals to the people of the town that the environmentalist was actually working for his company, and we are left to assume that the town in turn rejected the proposal for the company to being operating in the town.
A problem with this turn of events is that the agency of the people of this town was reduced to the will and drive of different people in the company. This leads the conflict to be resolved by the “guilty feeling” and moral turn by one of the main drivers of the company’s profits. While depicting this “switching sides” so to speak is not in and of itself problematic, what is troubling is how the resolution of the conflict relied solely on his moral compass: not on the residents of the town themselves who had been so active throughout the film. They had been empowered every step of the way in rejecting the company, with a strong populist feeling of “us vs them” that had guided their clear move away from the company’s line. Yet once we discover that they were all being tricked (the company was “playing both sides” as the fake environmentalist had said), all of that empowerment was assumed to have just given in to the company’s ability to control the narrative. That’s not to say that when “both sides are being played” that people don’t get tricked, and that the ruling class doesn’t often get what it wants: but the endogenous, or homegrown opposition to the company ceased to be a factory in the conflict resolution of this film. This is the issue that should have been further explored.
The overall structure of the film is not itself challenged by this resolution, but it does take away from the overall progressive tone of the film. But in general the film deals with many important issues beyond fracking, namely the future of small towns where factory jobs and investment continue to leave and more and more they rely on deals with companies like the one depicted in this film.