by Jeff Beck, Guest Film Critic
Gus Van Sant’s “Promised Land” is a film that strives not only to engage the audience, but also to deliver a message at the same time. In this case, the message is about how fracking (drilling for natural gas) can have drastic effects on the environment. There has been an ongoing debate for years now regarding the subject with some finding it to be safe, while others have major concerns about the multitudes of chemicals used. “Promised Land” gives you the debate from both sides in an attempt to have you see it from different angles.

The film revolves around Steve Butler (Matt Damon) and Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand), partners from a natural gas company that are attempting to get permission to drill in a small town. They think it will be a rather easy thing to do given that the town is close to dying. The revenue that the drilling would bring in would help the town survive and make the townspeople rich at the same time. However, it’s not quite as easy as they thought when a local teacher, Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook), and several others present an opposition to the project.

Things only become worse for Steve and Sue when an environmentalist, Dustin Noble (John Krasinski), shows up to start a campaign against the company. He hands out fliers, places signs, and even does some public speaking on the matter during karaoke night at the local bar in an effort to tell the people what fracking could do to their farms. Finding themselves losing support, Steve and Sue have to come up with ideas to win back the town’s support in order to finish the job that they came there to do.

Van Sant is no stranger to dramatic material, having directed such great films as “Good Will Hunting, “Milk,” and “Elephant.” He’s usually one for presenting fascinating characters that the audience is easily able to form a connection with, which made it rather strange to find this attribute missing from his latest project. He, along with the writers, Damon and Krasinski, seemed more determined to get their message across rather than creating characters that would help us care about the message in the first place.

As far as the fracking debate goes, for about two-thirds of the film they do a good job of presenting both sides as Steve pushes the benefits that the town will receive and Dustin explains what could happen should the company be allowed to drill. If the character development had been up to par, then the film could have worked decently, but by having the townspeople as flat, inconsequential characters in a story where they’re the ones trying to make the big decision, we’re left to focus merely on those who are trying to force the decision on them.

Among the very few characters we do focus on, Steve is the only one who goes through any kind of change, but unfortunately it’s one of a very predictable nature. There’s also a forced subplot that has him connecting with one of the townspeople, Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt), that adds nothing to the story. Her character is not developed enough for us to be able to sympathize with her individual plight in the overall problem that this town is facing. As for Sue, her character almost immediately becomes an afterthought as the film quickly changes to following Steve for almost the entire story.

The predictability issue is tied into the final part of the film, which is where the narrative begins to fall apart. There’s a completely unnecessary twist that ruins the intriguing battle that had been building between the two sides of the fracking issue. If they had been able to keep the debate going, or had one side been able to outweigh the other, it would have made for a much more compelling conclusion than the easy out they decided to take.

“Promised Land” ends up being about two-thirds of a decent film, despite having problems with its characters. Had there been a little more thought put into the ending, perhaps it would have been more satisfying. A movie with a message is not a bad thing, but when that message is pretty clear from the onset, there are not really many places it can go. It can either end in a dignified manner that ties up everything well, or it can end in a silly fashion in order to force the change that the main character will inevitably go through. Unfortunately, the filmmakers chose the latter. 2.5/4 stars.