The controversial issue of “fracking” the land to mine natural gasses becomes a drama from director Gus Van Sant, one of our most versatile filmmakers. Like Norma Rae, Silkwood and The China Syndrome, this is a “message movie” that’s also solid entertainment. The film’s stars and screenwriters, Matt Damon and John Krasinski, aren’t interested in preaching to their audience or creating something heavy handed. Instead, they show all sides of the argument and make persuasive cases, but this is more about embracing what’s true and not being a patsy for what sounds like the truth.
Damon and Frances McDormand play Steve and Sue, employees of Global, a natural gas company whose fracking practices are possibly damaging the environment. We see the teamwork involved as Damon and McDormand’s characters go into a small town and make a door-to-door salesman pitch to homeowners that, if they sign over their land, they will become millionaires. After gaining enough support from the community by about “60 percent,” their mission appears successful, until an earnest environmentalist named Dustin (played by Krasinski) arrives and sets out to sabotage all the progress made by Global.
Anyone who’s already made up their mind about the subject matter might accuse this of being “tree hugger” propaganda from liberal filmmakers. What cuts away that argument is a clever choice made by the screenwriters: Steve, the pro-fracking corporate man played by Damon, is a likeable, genuine soul who questions his job as much as he excels at it. Krasinski, on the other hand, is playing the green thumb environmental activist and, while the character would usually be the “good guy” of most films (and the symbol of liberal righteousness), here he’s smarmy and obnoxious.
We’re on Damon’s side, even as we question his choices, while Krasinski, who is best known for playing loveable characters, portrays Dustin as a cold, self-righteous prick. Being a longtime fan of Krasinski’s work on The Office, I found it refreshing to see him play a complex character that you’ll be hoping someone will slap. Hard.
Damon gives a perfectly understated performance that could have been played as a flat out villain but instead he stands as someone who’s recognizably real and “just doing my job” as his conscience creeps in. Even the underdeveloped love story subplot comes off, due to the unforced banter between Damon and his co-star Rosemarie DeWitt.
Another smart choice is how McDormand’s character never wavers in finding a separation between her job and her morals. This contrasts nicely with Damon’s character, who is as on the fence about what he feels as some audiences unfamiliar with “fracking” may be if this is their introduction to the topic.
The script plays to the well established formula of the slick outsider finding himself in America’s heartland (Doc Hollywood, Witness and Leap of Faith spring to mind). The strength of the story is how many scenes feel familiar but don’t go down the way you’d expect, like a bar encounter that feels like the set-up for a fight but ends up giving Damon a terrific barstool speech about the benefits of selling out. There’s also a stunning third act reveal that I didn’t see coming and a juicy role for the wonderful Hal Holbrook, effortlessly magnetic as the town’s smartest citizen.
The ambiguity of the film’s overall message is a great touch, as Van Sant, Damon and Krasinski want their film to start a conversation, not talk down to its audience. Only at the end, with a stump speech, does it briefly turn to a formula climax. The director’s gentle stylizations, solid performances and the careful finessing of the subject matter make this beautifully crafted little sleeper go down easily.
★ ★ ★
Rated R / 110 Min.