January 9, 2013

Gas Company Downplays Perils of Fracking in Eco-Drama


TRUST ME, YOU’LL MAKE A FORTUNE: Steve Butler (Matt Damon) is earnestly cajoling a farm owner into signing over the drilling rights to his farmland, so that the company that Butler is representing can proceed to extract natural gas from the oil shale deposit underneath the farmer’s property. Butler is hoping that the lure of easy money will blind the farmer to the potential long term damage to the local community’s ecology caused by the fracking process.

In 2011, a disturbing documentary called Gasland was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Documentary category. That eye opening exposé chronicled how energy companies had duped landowners in Pennsylvania and Colorado into signing over the drilling rights on their property and, at the same time, downplaying the ecological risks.

Hydraulic fracturing, aka fracking, the process employed to extract natural gas from underground oil shale deposits, has contaminated many communities environments, and made a number of homes virtually uninhabitable. In that documentary, victims demonstrated with a match how their tap water had become flammable and how their pets had turned sickly and started shedding fur in patches.

Presumably inspired by Gasland, the biblically titled Promised Land is a cautionary tale that tackles the same theme. This modern morality play reunites director Gus Van Sant with Matt Damon for their fourth collaboration which began back in 1997 with Good Will Hunting. The pair also worked together on Finding Forrester in 2000 and on Gerry a couple of years later.

In this film, Damon stars as Steve Butler, a farm boy who has become an itinerant corporate pitchman employed by a gas conglomerate to fast-talk country folks into turning over their drilling rights to the company. He and his partner (Frances McDormand) have been assigned to go to McKinley, a cash-strapped rural community whose local environment will almost certainly to be polluted if its residents are tricked into signing on the dotted line.

Steve has a down-home way of insinuating himself with the locals which even turns the head of a pretty schoolmarm (Rosemarie DeWitt). Fortunately, a couple of gadflies emerge when a skeptical science teacher (Hal Holbrook) and an outside agitator (John Krasinski) urge everybody not to be blinded by dollar signs, but to do a little research into the potential environmental consequences of fracking.

Very Good (***). Rated R for profanity. Running time: 106 minutes. Distributor: Focus Features.