(2012) Drama (Focus) Matt Damon, John Krasinski, Frances McDormand, Rosemarie DeWitt, Hal Holbrook, Titus Welliver, Scoot McNairy, Lucas Black, Tim Guinee, Terry Kinney, Sara Lindsey, Ken Strunk, Gerri Bumbaugh, Frank Conforti, Joanne Jeffers. Directed by Gus Van Sant
Rural America is often depicted as an idyllic place. Small towns where everyone not only knows one another but cares for one another as well. A place populated by hard-working folk who have farms that go back generations in the same family, a place untroubled by the bustle and stress of city life.
But that life is largely dying. Family farms are becoming an endangered species as agribusiness crowds them out of the marketplace. Many family farms require subsidies to get by. People in desperate situations are often vulnerable to any suggestion that might well save them from financial catastrophe.
Steve Butler (Damon) works for Global, a natural gas company, and he’s very good at what he does. What he does is go into small towns where Global wants to drill and secures contract granting drilling rights to their land. He and his partner Sue Thomasson (McDormand) are successful more than their peers by triple digits in terms of percentages. He is up for an executive position and the company has sent him to a small Pennsylvania town which Global wants to be the beachhead for their penetration into the Keystone State.
Normally, Steve is in and out of a town like this in a matter of days. He grew up on a family farm in Eldridge, Iowa and speaks the language of these people. He knows what buttons to push. But there is a science teacher, a retired engineer by the name of Frank Yates (Holbrook) who raises some questions at the town hall meeting about the natural gas drilling. He brings up fracking, the technique of breaking up shale and releasing the gas by creating cracks in the rock with huge drills and by forcing water, sand and chemicals into the shale to speed up the process. He’s read some pretty disturbing stuff on the internet and Steve, who had tied one on the night before, wasn’t in any shape to deliver answers.
To make matters worse, an idealistic environmentalist named Dustin Noble (Krasinski) blows into town to ally himself with Frank. He disseminates all sorts of information on the effects of the chemicals seeping up into the groundwater, with graphic photos of dead cows, brown land, dreams of five generations of farmers withered up and dead in a matter of months.
Things turn into a war of wills between Dustin and Steve. Dustin seems to have the upper hand – including with a teacher named Alice (DeWitt) who Steve has become sweet on. But for the battle of the hearts and minds of the town, Steve and Sue are losing the battle until a turning point comes. However, that moment of victory turns to ashes when Steve comes to a terrible realization that turns his viewpoint on what he has worked so hard to accomplish on its ear.
There are some political ramifications to the film and we might as well get those out of the way first. Detractors have proclaimed this a hatchet job on the natural gas industry, using fear tactics to unfairly portray fracking as being far more dangerous than it is, and using sensationalism and exaggerated cases to make its point. They also point to the participation of ImageNation as a producer. ImageNation is a production company based in Abu Dhabi, part of the United Arab Emirates which is of course an oil-producing region who would have a vested interest in creating a hatchet job on the production of U.S.-based natural gas.
There’s no doubt that the filmmakers have taken a stance of being against fracking and have used twisted the facts somewhat. While it is true that fracking has been connected with groundwater pollution and the release of methane gas into the atmosphere, it must be said that the kind of destruction depicted by the Dustin Noble character has yet to be determined to be a product of fracking exclusively (ordinary drilling for ground water well can also lead to methane gas release) and while I think it’s safe to say that there is some room for discussion as to the long-term effects of fracking on the environment and human health, it certainly isn’t the problem it is made out to be here, at least not in a way that could be proven in a court of law – at least not yet.
So keep in mind that this is a work of fiction, not a documentary and as such there are some things to recommend it. Damon is so darn likable that you end up rooting for him even though you know the company he works for are a bunch of jerks. He believes in his company with almost child-like faith; they wouldn’t lie to him and they certainly wouldn’t do anything immoral or wrong.
Damon has a strong supporting cast behind him. McDormand plays Sue with laconic strength and a sense of big sisterness that creates an appealing chemistry between the two. Sue does most of her parenting via Skype and being a city girl, has less connection to the people she’s dealing with than Steve does which makes it easier for her to separate herself. Krasinski gets Dustin’s character down note-perfect while Holbrook could do the sage/oracle role in his sleep but nonetheless does it here like a pro. Welliver does some of the best work of the veteran character actor’s career as the proprietor of a general store who becomes sweet on Sue.
Van Sant enlists cinematographer Linus Sandgren to deliver some really pretty shots of the rural countryside. There’s often a misty quality adding to the allure. It’s all calculated to deliver to audiences the most nostalgic of visuals. In a sense, it becomes a special effect.
I will say that in an effort to show how dastardly and ruthless that corporate America will go the filmmakers go to absurd lengths. I think keeping things in the realm of reality would have been far more effective. Big corporations have been guilty of plenty of abuses to make them look villainous without having them resort to what they do here.
This is a decent enough movie as long as you go in realizing that they adhere to a specific point of view. Liberals may well embrace the doctrine here while conservatives may decry it. I’m on the fence about fracking; I certainly think there’s enough evidence warranting further study into the practice and maybe looking into ways to making it more safe. While I realize that in most instances fracking has caused zero environmental damage, there have been instances where it has not.
This is one of those movies where your political leanings may well determine how much you appreciate the movie. In all honesty the movie isn’t really stirring – at least not in the way that a great film is – nor is it so well-made that you can overlook the manipulative nature of the script. However the performances are such that you’ll forgive a lot of sins assuming you can get past your views on the environment.
REASONS TO GO: Bucolic cinematography. Damon plays his natural likability to a “T.” Welliver, McDormand, DeWitt, Holbrook and Krasinski deliver solid performances.
REASONS TO STAY: Stretches believability. Takes a controversial subject and turns it banal.
FAMILY VALUES: There was enough foul language to net this an R rating.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Damon was originally slated to direct the movie but had to pull out because of time constraints and creative differences. He did remain aboard as an actor.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/14/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100. The reviews are pretty darn mixed.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Up in the Air
MINIATURE HORSE LOVERS: Hal Holbrook’s Frank Yates character raises them and they make several appearance, often puzzling Steve and Sue as they see them in the field.
FINAL RATING: 6/10
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