Promised Land, the Shanty Cafe & the Problem With Environmentalists"/>
The Dinner (lunch, actually): Grilled ham and cheese sandwich, fries and a cup of coffee at the Shanty Cafe on the southwest slope of Queen Anne Hill.
The Screenplate: Promised Land is a story about the controversial practice of natural gas fracking. It's directed by Gus Van Sant. It stars Matt Damon. And it's adapted from a story by Dave Eggers. So to say that Promised Land ultimately takes a dim view of fracking is hardly a spoiler, given the unabashedly liberal bona fides of its headliners.
But a tipped-off ending doesn't pose much of a problem for what's ultimately a satisfying, wonderfully acted, and thought-provoking film. Obvious as the film's moral verdict might be, there's a nifty twist thrown in toward its conclusion which renders the means by which the ending is reached plenty exhilarating.
Damon plays a natural gas executive whose job is to swoop into poor, rural towns and convince citizens to lease their land from underneath them for what, to them, is a small fortune. Assisting him in Pennsylvania is Frances McDormand. Damon hails from a small town in Iowa which was "hollowed out" after a nearby Caterpillar plant closed, thus compelling him to pursue a profession which put him in position to provide a fiscal parachute to towns like his which have been rendered obsolete by globalization and automation. A speech about "fuck you money" which he delivers in the local watering hole to a group of skeptical locals is enough to convince the audience that, even though Damon works for the perceived bad guy, his personal motives are genuine and heartfelt. His character is complex amidst a cast (enriched by the always-spectacular Rosemarie DeWitt) full of archetypes, which isn't a deficiency so much as it allows Damon's character to pop more, to the benefit of the film.
Yet for all its virtues, Promised Land has a frustrating weakness, and it's a weakness of the anti-fracking movement at large. It's all good and well--and probably accurate--to say that the long-term environmental hazards posed by fracking outweigh the short-term financial benefits. But, then, what economic alternatives are there to offer to struggling towns who Do The Right Thing, other than to turn their keys and fields over to Mexican immigrants who consider a life of hard outdoor labor to be socially ascendant? Promised Land presents none--besides fracking, that is (Damon's plan for the town's economic revival may be paved with dead cattle and flammable well water, but at least it's a plan)--and environmentalists who've long touted victimless energy sources have thus far failed to make them either affordable or viable for mass consumption. If you escort an unemployed father of four into a tornado shelter with a calamitous twister looming, you deserve credit for shepherding him to safety. But once things settle down overhead, he still could use a fucking job.
While small-town America might be decaying, it's still rare to pass through a four-way stop at State & Main and not encounter a classic country diner. Seattle's even got one: the Shanty Cafe, which paradoxically rests at the boundary of one of the city's densest neighborhoods (Lower Queen Anne). The Shanty's been around since well before Seattle attained its cosmopolitan sheen, and suffered its equivalent of the Caterpillar plant leaving town when the Seattle P-I shuttered its print edition down the street.
But the Shanty, eschewing gourmet coffee and boasting a menu as heartily straightforward as they come, perseveres, largely by reminding Seattleites of a way of life that no longer exists--except for an hour or so between the Shanty's four walls, an escape propelled primarily by generously buttered sourdough and non-dairy creamer.