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Handsome film fulfils its promise


Matt Damon and Frances McDormand in Promised Land.

Matt Damon and Frances McDormand in Promised Land.

Matt Damon and Frances McDormand in Promised Land.

The foreign mining companies planning to frack their way around lovely Leitrim in search of natural gas will be hoping this film doesn't attract too much of an Irish audience.

'Fracking', or hydraulic fracturing, is now the most common way of extracting oil and natural gas from the ground in the US, but has caused more than its fair share of controversy. Google it and you'll be confronted with a litany of horror stories and environmental disasters, though its proponents naturally insist it's entirely safe.

In Gus Van Sant's Promised Land, Matt Damon plays one of those people, a troubleshooter for a multinational energy company whose motives are annoyingly good.

Steve Butler has just been promoted by Global when he's sent to a small farming town in Pennsylvania that may be sitting on a goldmine of natural gas. With him is his pragmatic and salty associate, Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand), and their work involves equal measures of cunning and charm.

As they've done in countless rural communities elsewhere, they aim to talk the town's struggling farmers and smallholders into signing over the rights to frack on their land. They'll get a cash pay-off, and the promise of more to come if gas is found, and Steve is a past master at persuading them to accept what seems a risk-free proposition.

He doesn't even feel bad about it. Steve originally hailed from a small Iowa farming town that died on its feet when a local tractor factory closed down: he's convinced that smaller farmers are doomed in America, and that the fracking money will give these good people the financial security they crave in hard times.

But at his first meeting with the townsfolk, Steve's bland contentions are politely contradicted by a wily old local called Frank Yates (the invariably excellent Hal Holbrook), who seems to know what he's talking about.

Things get even worse for Steve and Sue when a charismatic environmental activist called Dustin (John Krasinski) shows up claiming that fracking poisoned the soil and animals on his Nebraska farm, and has the pictures to prove it.

A bitter battle for the hearts and minds of the community ensues, and to make things more complicated, Steve falls for a local schoolteacher (Rosemarie DeWitt) who makes him begin to doubt the logic of his work.

Promised Land is handsome and worthy, and a screenplay by Damon and Krasinski is often slick, and witty. It's also a little too fair-minded for its own good, and in struggling to present both sides of the fracking debate, it waters down its energy. That said, this film is more about people than it is about drilling (the process, by the way, is only given the most perfunctory of explanations), and examines the wisdom of giving away time-honoured livelihoods and traditions in return for short-term gain.

The key to its relative success as a drama lies in the goodhearted ambivalence of Damon's character. Even though he's the running dog of an unscrupulous and amoral multinational, everyone can see he's not a bad guy, and in fact he even says so at one point himself.

In a way the battle for the heart of the community becomes a battle for Steve's soul, and McDormand's more practical colleague can only watch helplessly as he struggles with his demons.

She's excellent in an underpinning comic role, as is Titus Welliver. And if Promised Land doesn't ultimately resolve all the questions it sets out to address, it's an engaging and likeably messy little film, and Damon is a latter-day James Stewart when it comes to playing goodhearted everymen.

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