What ever happened to the salt-of-the-earth, small-town, country bumpkin, family farmer that used to populate popular movies?
I ask this question after having slogged through the Matt Damon/John Krasinski antifracking debacle called Promised Land. As someone who has written quite a lot about natural gas development and the process of extraction known as hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), I felt it was important to watch the movie to see the first movie to take this revolutionary development in domestic energy production as its subject. I expected to see a lot of lefty politics (Damon cowrote the movie after all) mixed with bad science, in the service of denouncing the potential that natural gas has to change this country for the better. And I got that, in spades, along with a really poorly written and not-very-watchable film, where none of the characters has any chemistry with any other.
But all of that was predictable.
What I found most surprising and worst about Promised Land is how it depicts small town life and personalities from an entirely elitist, snobbish, urban perspective.
Matt Damon plays a young, ambitious and newly promoted energy company executive whose job is to sign up small property owners to lease their land to his company for the right to drill for natural gas. But lest anyone think he’s got nothing in common with the small-town folks he’s trying to contract with, he tells everyone who’ll listen that he comes from a small town just like the unnamed Pennsylvania hamlet where the movie takes place. Thing is, Damon’s character Steve hated the town he came from, he hated having to paint his grandfather’s barn every summer, he hated the smallness of the place, and he hated what happened when the local Caterpillar plant closed. “When the industry left, the town died,” Steve says and then he points out that he left as soon as possible.
The cast of small-town characters Damon and his coworker (played by Frances McDormand) interact with range from stupid with something approximating a Midwest accent to stupid with an accent that comes straight out of the Bayou or Appalachia.
Remember Mel Gibson, fighting the bank and Mother Nature to save his small farm in The River? Or Sally Field picking her own cotton with the help of a blind John Malkovich in Places in the Heart? Well there’s no one like those rural heroes in Promised Land, I can assure you. Not even the characters who are supposed to get the better of Damon’s slick gas-company-man are given a noble reason to deny him. Damon is rejected by a guy raising his brother’s kid alone who admits that the farm is doing badly but accuses Damon of only being interested in his property because he’s poor. “How many wells have you got in New York City or Pittsburgh?” he whines.
It doesn’t seem to have occurred to cowriters Krasinski or Damon that, in reality, landowners know exactly why “landmen” like Damon’s character are propositioning them–and it isn’t because of the size of their bank accounts. The gas companies have to go where the gas is. Small towns across the country from Pennsylvania to Texas are being transformed by fracking, and it is causing friction among former friends and neighbors but not for any of the reasons Krasinski and Damon have put up on screen. And this is the real failure of the movie.
The truth is that, as I discovered on a visit to Susquehanna and Wayne counties in Pennsylvania, there are real divisions among townspeople in places like Honesdale and Dimock because some landowners know natural gas is the best (nay, only) economic opportunity available to them, while others, who have an outside source of income or are retirees to the area, don’t want any type of development to change the rural existence they love.
For Promised Land to be a great movie it would have dealt with exactly this issue of change in small town America due to the energy revolution and the impact that it is having on otherwise good people on both sides of the argument. There are even a couple of characters in the movie, especially antifracking advocate and retired Boeing executive played by Hal Holbrook, who could have exemplified the antidevelopment side of the argument. In this regard, Krasinski has the most to apologize for since the movie was his idea and he says it’s because he wanted to honor the small Pennsylvania town where his father was born and raised. But that would have meant that Damon and Krasinski had to do their homework. Too bad we got Promised Land instead.
Abby W. Schachter is a Pittsburgh-based journalist and blogger. Follow her on twitter.com/abbyschachter