"Promised Land," Matt Damon's movie tale about the shale boom in rural America, is posting "modest" box office results for its limited early release along with middling reviews.
And, as expected, the movie some have dubbed "Good Will Fracking" has been praised by environmentalists and seen scorn from the natural gas industry and supporters.
"It's entertainment, and pretty silly entertainment," said former Pennsylvania environmental regulator John Hanger. "It doesn't pretend to deal with the real issues."
Hanger, now running for governor, supports gas development but also hit a drilling company in Dimock, Pa., with one of the largest-ever penalties in the country. He said "Promised Land" missed its chance by sidestepping most of the real issues faced by landowners, gas producers and environmentalists in the shale boom.
Drilling companies have launched their own online response, called "The Real Promised Land," highlighting the financial benefits of drilling and the stories of landowners who've suffered no ill effects.
But the movie struck a chord with Sharon Wilson, a blogger and activist with Earthworks, who has taken on drilling in Texas. The film, she said, accurately portrays some of the "dirty tricks" companies use when moving into new communities. And she said the audience she saw it with was impressed.
"No one moved or said anything when it ended," Wilson said. "It was total silence and stillness."
Though the movie uses the term "fracking" only four times, all in one scene, followers of the shale debate will recognize many references. Damon's character, landman Steve Butler, name-drops Dish, Texas, a town where the drilling debate has been high-profile and intense. Butler assures residents of the fictional town of McKinley that hydraulic fracturing has been done for "over 50 years." John Krasinski's character, environmentalist Dustin Noble, warns the town with stories about dying cows near drill sites. (For a copy of the screenplay, click here.)
Krasinski and Damon have said they turned to the New York Times' "Drilling Down" series on the shale boom after finding they needed to revise a story that was originally about wind farms. They were also informed by a "60 Minutes" piece on drilling and the anti-drilling documentary "Gasland" (Greenwire, Feb. 24, 2011).
Although the actors lauded the Times series, the paper's review of "Promised Land" didn't return the favor. Reviewer A.O. Scott opined that the film "works" but that it is "unable to fulfill its own promise."
The Washington Post was less charitable, calling it an "attractive, well-intentioned dry well." And the Los Angeles Times deemed it "an echo of a convincing film rather than the real deal."
In its box office roundup last weekend, Variety said the movie "got lost in an uber-crowded post-Christmas frame." Opening at 25 U.S. locations, "Promised Land" drew an estimated $190,150, "for a modest per-screen average of $7,606." It is to expand to more theaters later this week.
Most of the filming was done in Westmoreland County, Pa., east of Pittsburgh, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Some of the farms filmed were in Armstrong County, northeast of Pittsburgh. Armstrong is next to Butler County, which shares its name with Damon's character.
Some residents in Armstrong County where some scenes were shot have said they were misled into believing the film would be less critical of the natural gas industry.
"They filmed this movie in our backyard. They said it would be fair to drilling. It's not. We're pissed," the group says on its Facebook page.
Hanger said the movie sticks to caricatures, with the gas company supporters cast as dishonest, landowners as greedy and drilling opponents as "selfless saints." In one unlikely scene, Damon gets punched in a bar by a camouflage-wearing local opposed to gas development.
"In Pennsylvania's gas drilling counties, drilling is favored about 3-to-1," Hanger said. "There are people in the rural areas who oppose gas, but the odds are heavily in the direction that Dustin [Krasinski's character] would be the one getting hit."