As a psychiatrist, I don't know much about gas fracking, but I have learned some things about human nature, including how the conscience -- even if temporarily contained -- will, in time, have its moment of reckoning. How that happens for Steve Butler, the "All-American" advance man for a global energy company, is the human story of this remarkable film.
Promised Land was tightly written by Matt Damon and John Krasinski (who co-stars in the film as a treehugger ostensibly having come to a quiet, desperate farming town sitting on top of a fortune, since gas is as good as gold) from a story by Dave Eggers. The movie is yet another of Participant Media's co-productions; they are a company that knows how to get behind a broad range of social issues (some of their other films include The Help, Contagion, Lincoln and The Soloist).
An ambitious, affable Steve Butler (the ubiquitous Damon) arrives in rural Anytown, USA, here called McKinley, whose fortunes have seen far better days, with his veteran partner, Sue Thompson (played with aplomb by Frances McDormand). They are there to convince the townsfolk to lease for fracking their bucolic pastures to a corporate behemoth. Might as well call the town David and the multinational Goliath, since how can this town and its ordinary people, who do manual work, drink and sense that generations of their earnest work is about to reach its dead end, stand a chance?
Mr. Damon, as Butler, has shown us how well he can morph into so many a character, especially the kid next door, whether he is a rogue agent, or from a working class Massachusetts town, or a farm boy from the Midwest. In Promised Land he had grown up on a farm but become a city boy hungry to leave his past behind. It is his familiarity, his insider-ness to the town's people and culture, that allows him to walk right in, to fit right in, and to bypass their defenses against strangers from another, avaricious world. Dustin Noble (Mr. Krasinksi, charmingly infamous from The Office) arrives on Butler's tail driving a pickup bearing the decal of an environmental advocacy organization and loaded with lawn signs depicting the toxic death of cows and perhaps other mammals, like, um, humans. Bad guy Butler, good guy Noble, you might think; let the battle begin.
Romance sweetens the story as Steve Butler meets Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt, a growing presence in film, TV and stage), a McKinley elementary school teacher who proudly peers over the land she inherited upon her father's premature death. The competition between Butler and Noble intensifies as both court this local belle. She is more than a romantic interest, however, because she embodies the values that run deep in this town and in good people everywhere.
For the film's Dumbledore or Gandalf we have Frank Yates (played by Hal Holbrook, a specialist in iconic characters) who came home to McKinley to teach science after MIT and a career in the aeronautics industry, so he is no simple beaker stirrer. He is the voice that admonishes the townsfolk about the risks they may incur from fracking and proffers to Butler that a life without dignity is no life at all.
What rang true to me, wearing my day job hat, was that neither the romantic sway nor the moral argument was what was transformative for Butler. Mind you, they likely softened him up. What clinched his change of mind, and his redemption, was how he was humbled, beaten, at his own game. To see how he was fracked, so to speak, you will need to see the film, because I will not spoil that fine piece of writing and acting.
Promised Land was done on a low budget ($15 million) yet feels like a far more pricey production. Its release, evidently, will be accompanied by a counter-media campaign by those who seek to frack pristine, ailing communities and promise prosperity instead of food stamps, and all of us freedom from foreign oil.
Dr. Sederer's book for families who have a member with a mental illness, The Family Guide to Mental Health Care, will be published by WW Norton in the spring of 2013.
The opinions expressed here are solely mine as a psychiatrist and public health advocate. I receive no support from any pharmaceutical or device company.
Visit Dr. Sederer's website (www.askdrlloyd.com) for questions you want answered, commentaries, movie and book reviews, and stories.