The day a natural gas company comes to your economically depressed small town and offers big money to lease your land for fracking (hydraulic fracturing drilling), you have a choice: you can tell them to beat it or you can take your winnings from the Jed Clampett Lotto and leave town. And leaving town really is your only option. Because if you stick around all that money will go to the local hospital when you get sick from drinking your community's fresh new flammable H20. Don't believe it? Watch the documentary Gasland and thrill to the ignition of tap water from a kitchen sink.
But you probably aren't planning to watch the documentary Gasland. That's fine. It's a documentary, after all. And a frightening one, at that. Lots of valuable information, just not a lot of good times.
That's where Gus Van Sant and Matt Damon and Frances McDormand and John Krasinski come in, fictionalizing the anti-fracking message, tossing in some attractive human drama and, strangely, a paranoid twist just to juice up the entertainment value.
As representatives for the natural gas money-men, Damon and McDormand are equal parts good and bad cop. She settles in easily to the marked town, fumbling at karaoke and dressing down for the part. Damon disarms the locals with his blond Matt Damon-ness but is fast to threaten the uncooperative with whispered snarls like, "Do you have any idea who you're dealing with here? Do you know what we're capable of? We will come back and we will buy it all for nothing." He's the super-likable, stone-cold corporate piranha, capable of buying off dissent and intimidating the ones who won't take the cash. When environmentalist Krasinski shows up for battle, it turns into a clash of toothsome wills, a good-looking message movie.
But for the film's sake those messages could stand to be bolder. Lacking the sexy thriller genes that vintage warning shots like 1979's The China Syndrome packed into its running time, it also wisely steers clear of devastating downer territory like 1983's nuclear war drama Testament, ultimately playing out like a solidly reported politics-meets-human interest story on public radio. And that kind of gentler approach comes with its own set of dangers. Its quiet nature may give it longer legs over time, slipping its way into cable viewing, but it'll have to reach way beyond the typically urban Gus Van Sant audience to make the impact it wants. And with a third act that all but solves the problem before the credits roll, softening the environmental threat it wants to expose, it runs the greatest risk of all: good manners, an even-keeled tone, and all the unwanted invisibility that comes with it.