The film journeys into the land of “Silkwood” and “Erin Brockovich,” where a small town is under siege from corporate polluters who try to convince its inhabitants the corporation has only the town’s best interests at heart.
Of course, you in the audience know a corporation is not a person (despite our Supreme Court’s insistence to the contrary) and therefore not only cannot have a heart but knows only its own self-interest.
I have no problem with a movie with a political agenda treating a natural-gas company using hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” to extract that gas as the bad guys. But make them realistic bad guys, not straw men the film can so easily torch.
The problems are there right in the beginning. Matt Damon’s character is introduced in a restaurant, drinking expensive French wine with a corporate suit. The suit praises him as the company’s best salesman when it comes to leasing land from small-town residents for drilling.
Damon’s Steve Butler shyly shrugs this off, insisting he’s from a small town too and knows how to talk to these folks. Consequently, he can sign these dupes in half the time for half the price compared with the rest of the company’s sales force. Impressive, right?
Now a couple of things before moving on: In his career thus far, Matt Damon has played all sorts of characters but like, Jimmy Stewart or Robert Redford, never plays a really bad guy. (Okay, I know, Stewart played one bad guy in “After The Thin Man.”)
Plus Damon wrote this movie with his co-star John Krasinski. So you need not be prescient to realize that Damon’s Steve Butler will struggle with the villainy that comes with his job description.
A few locals spot the phoniness in his pitch. He blatantly tries to bribe a town elder with about as much sophistication as a Mafia goon. What happened to Steve’s small-town chumminess? Where is his beguiling charm?
Then a grassroots environmentalist (Krasinski) and local science teacher (Hal Holbrook) run circles around him when talking to the town folks. Steve can’t even offer a clearly stated, convincing argument in support of fracking.
Now I’ve heard the pros and cons about fracking and whether or not it contaminates underground water on talk shows. Believe me, both sides can marshall facts and figures to support their cause.
So how on earth is Steve & Sue the corporation’s best sales team? They act like they couldn’t sell bottled water in the Sahara.
Steve can’t even remember to take the sales tag off local clothes he just bought to convince town folks he’s one of them.
If Damon is going to play a con artist, just as he played a badass killer in the Jason Bourne movie series, then play it with gusto: Let’s see him give great sales pitches, dismiss concerns over fracking with ease and make that environmentalist look like the tree-hugging sissy he is!
I guess it would be a plot spoiler to further demonstrate how dishonest the film gets later. Suffice it to say the film’s twist, which I believe many will see coming anyway, further demonizes the corporation and practice of fracking without any acknowledgement there is a genuine scientific controversy over fracking.
Even if there weren’t, fine, take a side and argue it as best you can within the framework of a fictional drama. But as Hitchcock always said, a movie is only as good as its villain. When you make a villain so blatantly devious, you harm your own movie.
The characters here all are drawn without much depth. Damon and Krasinski (working from a story by Dave Eggers, author of the critically praised memoir “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius”) try half-heartedly to turn the Steve/Sue relationship into a Laurel and Hardy comedy routine built around a vehicle that frequently malfunctions and observations they make in their movements around town.
A romantic attraction Steve develops for a local school teacher played by Rosemarie DeWitt is mostly postponed until the movie is over. The anti-fracking foe played by Holbrook is pretty much dismissed once he makes a speech at a town-hall meeting.
Krasinski is a bundle of nerves and easy-going charm but (in a character he wrote for himself after all) digs no deeper. And so it goes.
Van Sant and Swedish cinematographer Linus Sandgren take wonderfully crisp, loving shots of the town and surrounding countryside reminiscent of old Kodachrome stills of the ’70s without ever developing a sense of who actually lives here and why the town is faltering.
Effective music from Danny Elfman and Simon and Garfunkle-like songs underscore the film’s loving portrait of a small farming community and a passing way of life.
In the end though, this is a mere backdrop like those phony backlot towns in old Hollywood movies. In every other way, the film feels equally as phony too, rigged against the corporate interests the Hollywood liberals so hate without exploring how those interests really operate and why they so often do convince people to vote or sign papers against their own self-interest.
One further note: this anti-fracking film is partially funded by a film company in the United Arab Emirates, a country whose very existence depends on oil. So just ask yourself whose interests are being served by this film’s political message.
Opens: January 4, 2013 (Focus Features)
Production companies: Focus Features in association with Imagine Nation Abu Dhabi and Participant Media presents a Sunday Night/Media Farm/Pearl Street Films production
Cast: Matt Damon, Frances McDormand, John Krasinski, Hal Holbrook, Rosemarie DeWitt, Scoot McNairy, Titus Welliver, Terry Kinney, Tim Guinee, Lucas Black
Director: Gus Van Sant
Screenwriters: John Krasinski, Matt Damon
Story by: Dave Eggers
Producers: John Krasinski, Matt Damon, Chris Moore
Executive producer: Jonathan King, Ron Schmidt, Jeff Skoll
Director of photography: Linus Sandgren
Production designer: Daniel B. Clancy
Music: Danny Elfman
Costume designer: Juliet Polcsa
Editor: Billy Rich
R rating, 108 minutes