Top critical review
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on April 26, 2014
The title tells us the film is taking on one of the present day’s big subjects,fracking,but it has undertones of biblical proportions,with a big director(Van Sant) and big stars,Damon,who co-wrote the story by Eggers,and the dependable McDormand. Steve(Damon) is committed to his job of persuading small town people, small farmers,to sell the rights of their land for the drilling for natural gas, only because he came from a small town which died when the industry left.Steve thinks he’s there to bring benefits to the small farmers,who are living through hard times.They want to get their kids through college and this is the way.He is convinced that rural life cannot be sustained by agriculture alone.Steve has been picked by Global Crosspower Solutions to promote big business, smooth anxieties,tap into the yokel mindset,with evangelism.
Steve is up against a local science teacher Frank Yates(Hal Holbrook),who has researched the topic,and knows they only go to the poor areas to exploit the deposits,and is sceptical about the effects of the fracking process.Steve also has environmental activist Dustin Noble(Krasinski),who has turned up with an axe to grind against Global,telling people fracking in his hometown led to the poisoning of farm animals and the destruction of the local economy.He’s seen improbably whipping up the folk in a bar with a rendering of Springsteen’s ‘Dancing in the Dark’.He also makes a beeline(and the moral highground) for local teacher Alice,whom Steve fancied.This is not a debate about fracking,but fracking is the Maguffin of the movie.Steve is essentially a decent guy(“I’m not a bad guy”),but he knows he’s sold himself to the corporation,and some locals in a bar attack his complacency,punching him.
There is a Capraesque Local Hero aspect to this film,about a man trying to get into contact with his conscience,with perceived qualities of character.There’s a girl,Alice,who acts as a weathervane of affection between the two male adversaries.The nice-guy geniality shows fissures,as Noble gets under Steve’s skin more as he takes the bribe,only to deny it and send out flyers and signs to people’s properties and woos Alice.Damon and McDormand are wonderful in their roles as is Dewitt as Alice.The location cinematography in Pennsylvania is good and the gentle musical score is effective.But there are some strange plot twists and speeches at the end,that the film feels conflicted between polemics and storytelling,slipping into Capra-corn preachiness and a soft centre.Chinatown this ain’t,as it runs out of gas.