Narrative Analysis of THE PROMISED LAND (2012)


An examination of movies such as The Promised Land reveals the narratives that shape the way audiences view issues represented in films. Directed by Gus Van Sant, The Promised Land (2012) follows energy company employees Steve Butler (Matt Damon) and Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand) as they attempt to convince the residents of a rural town to sell their farms. Although many farmers are eager to sign the leases, other citizens speak out about the potential dangers of fracking (The Promised Land 2012). While the film can be viewed simply as a source of entertainment, a deeper synthesis highlights the narratives of energy companies, pro-fracking advocates, and citizens concerned about the effects of fracking on the environment and human health. A narrative analysis of The Promised Land uncovers the various perspectives on fracking that exist in today’s society.

For the most part, the film is shown from the viewpoint of energy company employee Steve Butler. Although he changes his position towards the end of the film, Butler is a strong supporter of fracking. According to Butler’s narrative, the problem and solution regarding fracking are obvious: people need money, and energy companies can finance that necessity. Butler’s primary focus is collecting the maximum amount of money for his employer. He believes that he is justified in doing so because his efforts will help the farmers (passive “characters” from his perspective). Butler’s narrative starts with a disappointing problem (farmers have no money) and ends with a conclusion that satisfies all of the parties involved.

The farmers willing to sign away their land to Butler have a similar, yet distinct narrative. Despite working long, tiring hours, the majority of these farmers have little money. They realize that life as a farmer is not as easy as it was for their parents or grandparents. For these farmers, the main conflict is whether to sell the farms that their families have owned for generations in exchange for large financial rewards. Many farmers decide that leasing their land is a logical choice in order to protect their families. The Promised Land represents this desire in a scene where a farmer looks at his daughter drawing at a table before emotionally asking to sign the lease (The Promised Land 2012). Pro-fracking farmers in the movie want to take control of the plot of their narrative and sell their land to benefit their families’ futures.

A third narrative in The Promised Land comes from the anti-fracking advocates. Although Butler and Thomason believe they can easily convince the townspeople to sell their land, a strong contingent of residents stand in opposition to the energy company. Led by Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook), a retired engineer, the group claims that fracking has several environmental and human health risks. The group’s narrative sets up a clear divide between the protagonists (the innocent farmers) and the antagonist (the greedy energy company willing to put lives at risk) of the situation. Butler and Thomason attempt to discredit Yates and his peers as overly concerned environmentalists, but Yates claims that their support is wide-reaching (which is true even outside of the movie, as a recent poll found that 51% of Americans oppose hydraulic fracking) (Connolly 2016). The anti-fracking advocates in the movie The Promised Land create a narrative focused on morality and the dangers of greed.

Although a work of fiction, The Promised Land accurately reflects the ongoing debate over fracking in the United States. The perspective of a true environmental group could have greatly added to the discussion, but the film does a good job of expressing the common perspectives of the energy industry and both pro- and anti-fracking advocates. Narrative analyses of films such as The Promised Land can help policymakers determine how people view certain issues. Legislators can then use these narratives to decide how to implement effective measures.



Connolly, Amy R. 2016. “Poll: Opposition to Fracking Growing in the United States.” United Press International Online, March 31.

The Promised Land. 2012. Directed by Gus Van Sant. Los Angeles: Participant Media. Film.
























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