Gus Van Sant
This film is the sanctimonious brainchild of urban bohemian Dave Eggers, who seemingly thought a narrative adaptation of Josh Fox's Gasland (a documentary exposing the environmental horrors of fracking), featuring the writing and acting talents of well-intentioned Hollywood idealists Matt Damon and John Krasinski, would help inform the masses.
And, in broad terms, it does what it sets out to do. Positing a narrative where natural gas lackey Steve Butler (Damon) and his more pragmatic (read: defeated) co-worker Sue (Frances McDormand) travel to a small town to offer local landowners money for the right to frack on their land, the story becomes that of education for both the small town denizens and the idealistic Steve.
Initially ignorant to the hazardous environmental assertions (water contaminated to the point where it can be lit on fire straight from the tap), he justifies his actions by pointing out the economic shift to urban corporate living. The decline of the traditionalist, self-sustaining, rural farming lifestyle is an omnipresent, pseudo-nostalgic (condescending) theme guiding the expository discussions of corporate influence and fascist infrastructures that decimate the common man unwilling to adapt.
This duality stems from the arrival of grass roots environmentalist Dustin Noble (Krasinski), an affable, self-proclaimed small town boy with an admonitory presentation in tow for anyone willing to listen, after he's done singing karaoke and bonding with the locals in a social capacity. Inevitably, this conflict leads to necessary character arcs and realizations that help us all see the value in idyllic small town life, which is presented here with a syrupy sweetness that doesn't exist in the real world.
In a watchable, formulaic capacity there's nothing ostensibly wrong with this self-satisfied instructional guide. But the manipulative manner in which it all plays out and the overly condescending way that small town locals are presented — malleable idiots prone to buy insincere posturing and instant gratification rewards — is insulting and smug.
There's a sense that Eggers, Krasinski and Damon genuinely feel like they're superior to their audience, which is particularly embarrassing when they try to depict rural empowerment as ever fluid, defined primarily by whatever melodramatic speech was last made on screen.
What's worse is the glib assertion of grass roots, communist simplicity, which is particularly evident towards the end of the film when a young girl with a lemonade stand refuses an inflated tip for her quality product — a business model we could all apparently learn from.
And while the story hits its dramatic moments at the right times and the actors all give their superficial ciphers a bit of heart, there's something dreadfully embarrassing and discomforting about having elitist, privileged, rich, smug celebrities attempting to assert their knowledge of, and appreciation for, the common folks of America.
While their idealism may be admirable within the vacuum of urban, liberal, undergraduate art sects, it reeks of desperation and insincerity everywhere else, having the galling distinction of presenting itself as genuinely superior to everyone. (Alliance)
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