Promised Land. Or, You’re A Good Man Matt Damon

by antigob

We swoop down on the Pennsylvania landscape like a deity in the beginning of Gus Van Sant’s Promised Land. We peak over Frank Yates’ (played by Hal Holbrook) fence and follow him into town, floating over his pickup as it trundles up the main street of… What is the town in Promised Land called? It doesn’t matter; it’s just a stage.

This is just part of the problem with the film: it strives to show a picture of how fracking can decimate a small farming community, but it does it with the broadest of strokes. Here’s a picturesque (nameless) town, with its cast of clichéd farm types: the dumb good ol’ boys, the enlightened gun shop owner, the pretty single school teacher just waiting for an honest man to sweep into town. Here he is, Matt Damon’s Steve Butler: a small town boy himself but now selling fracking rights for Global Crosspower Solutions, oblivious to all controversy.

This stretched my credibility. In the film, Steve is confronted by Frank Yates at a town hall meeting (funny how this downhome phrase has been adopted by corporate America to describe company gatherings). Frank cites cursory Google research into the dangers of fracking. My first thought was, surely Steve must already suspect this? Hasn’t he seen the flaming taps in Gasland? But Steve has drunk so much corporate Kool Aid he dismisses the farmer’s concerns (who also happens to be an ex-Boeing R&D researcher, because no simple farmer could ever be a believable critic). Are we really that naïve? Is Steve really that naïve? Even his plucky single mum, co-worker, played by Frances McDormand dryly acknowledges fracking’s bad name by saying what she does is simply a ‘job’.

Steve on a number of occasions states that the ‘small town way of life’ is an illusion by citing the example of how his own hometown could not be saved by farming when the local Caterpillar plant closed down. He believes he’s doing good. It’s unbelievable that a man who’s experienced firsthand the destructive neoliberal business policy of moving factories abroad could ever see the flagrantly dishonest practices of his employer as the road to rural economic salvation.

That’s because he doesn’t; Steve readily admits his complicity during several key scenes. It’s only because of Matt Damon’s performance that you’re able to accept his mantra of ‘I’m not a bad guy.’ This is not really a film about fracking, it’s a film about one man realising just how bad he’s become. All this is thrown into sharp relief when charismatic environmentalist, Dustin Noble (yes, that is his name) rolls into town with a memorable show and tell for the local kids, and that pretty school teacher.

Promised Land is as simplistic as the scene in the film in which a farmer spends his meager drilling rights on a fancy car. And that’s a great shame because there’s a wider debate to be made here: we cannot expect corporations to act for our common good; that’s the job of government. This film is a physical manifestation of our cynical belief that we no longer expect our leaders to lead.