There are parts of this movie that are hard to like. The main character, Steve
Butler, played by Matt Damon, is kind of the 21st century version of a
20th-century door-to-door salesman. He itinerates into small towns and charms
the local residents into allowing fracking on their land. He plays on their
greed, hinting at possibilities of money pouring in, but downplays any
suggestion of environmental damage. Butler assures these country folk that his
company is friendly to the land, and will re-plant trees and restore the earth
after they drill the oil from beneath them.
To these hardscrabble dairy and corn farmers, it all sounds too good to be
true. But Steve Butler is a winsome guy who is hard not to like. He flirts
with the ladies at the bar. He chats with the old men at the coffee shop.
He’s always courteous and respectful, and he possesses one of those honest,
open faces that people just want to trust.
Of course everything is not quite what it seems. His silent sidekick, played
by Frances MacDormand, engages in joking repartee with him in private, but it
turns out that she is really more the “company man” than he is. The bad
guy appears to be this independent environmentalist, who counters Butler’s
smooth-talking blandishments with sobering pictures of dead cows and spoiled
crops and contaminated water. When Butler uses his company’s resources to
prove that the photographs are actually not from a neighboring State at all,
but were doctored and misrepresented, well, that just cements the deal. Which
is exactly what it was supposed to do. And slowly our Flim-Flam man begins to
realize that he is being played here, as well.
Unfortunately, his romance with the cute little local girl is something less
than convincing. So is his repentance, in a literal sense, his decision to
turn his life around and forsake his old ways. Somehow the moviemakers fail to
develop these themes as convincingly as they might have.
But despite the flawed character development, the premise of this movie
strikes a resonant chord in a lot of locales: the balance between industrial
development and ecological preservation. That’s something that affects us
all, and will become increasingly important to our children and grandchildren.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Minister, St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Irving,