"Promised Land" certainly sounds promising. It's got a strong cast and an intriguing premise that has the added bonus of real-world relevance. But, good intentions and good work aside, the film flounders before it reaches its conclusion.
The film, which stars Matt Damon and John Krasinski, who co-wrote the script (from a story by Dave Eggers), ends up too gimmicky for its evident earnestness. Smoothly directed by Gus Van Sant, it wants to both entertain and enlighten, but that combination eludes it.
The tale of what transpires in a small town when a large corporation attempts to purchase control of a previously untapped natural resource, "Promised Land" was originally conceived of with a focus on the wind energy boom. But when that idea didn't pan out, attention was shifted to what has become the hot-button ecological issue of the moment, the tumultuous practice of using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to extract underground natural gas.
Given that fracking is not the kind of thing mainstream Hollywood tends to get behind, what makes "Promised Land" initially intriguing is that Damon has cast himself in what seems like the anti-heroic role of a pro-fracking advocate. He plays Steve Butler, a key employee for a $9-billion corporation with the bland name of Global Crosspower Solutions. His job is to go into small farming communities and convince the residents to sell Global their natural gas drilling rights so the fracking can begin. He is so good at it that in the film's opening scene the corporation offers him the job of vice president of land management.
Butler is successful, as he himself admits, because of his farm town background: "I know them," he says, "they know me." And he is not pro-fracking per se so much as pro the amount of money these folks can get, money that he sees as liberating them from the backbreaking dead-end drudgery of farming. He views what he is offering as an escape hatch from a way of life that is inevitably coming to an end.
Because Damon is such an appealing actor, someone audiences naturally invest in, it's intriguing to hear him make the case for farmers selling out. We get to hear all about it when Steve, along with sales partner Sue Thomason (the always expert Frances McDormand), head into the fictional town of McKinley, his last sales assignment before he moves to the executive suite.
Initially, everything goes well as Steve and Sue buy local clothing for camouflage at the wonderfully named Rob's Guns, Groceries, Guitars and Gas and start their charm offensive across town. Steve is especially winning, asking youngsters in front yards "Are you the owner of this place?" and responding to the inevitable negative with a disbelieving "Then why are you doing all the work?"
Hoping to pass as just a regular guy, Steve hangs out in Buddy's Place, the local bar, where he meets Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt), a grade school teacher with a twinkle in her eyes. A few sparks do fly between them, but Steve is all business all the time, especially because he thinks his time in McKinley will be limited.
That turns out not to be the case. A town meeting is called to discuss Global's offer to buy up everything, and once Frank Yates, a flinty science teacher played by Hal Holbrook, voices his objections to what fracking does to both land and water, a quick stay turns into a three-week battle for hearts and minds before a community-wide referendum on the offer is to take place.
Once "Promised Land" positions Holbrook's Yates as the town's anti-fracking Mr. Integrity, the dynamic of the film takes a crucial turn. It's now clear that the real drama in "Promised Land" is not the case for or against fracking, it's about the saving of Steve Butler's soul, about the hows and whys of whether or not this basically decent young man will see the light.
This whole process is complicated by the entrance into McKinley of the pointedly named Dustin Noble, played by Krasinski. Noble is a committed environmental activist and anti-fracking zealot who shows up because he heard a battle was brewing and he wants to fight the good fight.
If Damon's Butler seems like a solid guy on the wrong side of a battle, Krasinski's Noble gives off the opposite vibe. On the one hand he is conviviality itself, endearing himself to one and all and making heartfelt pleas about the dangers of fracking, but there is an indefinable quality about him that doesn't wear well.
The frustrating combination of Noble's appeal to the townspeople and the irritation he is likely to cause in audiences sounds more intriguing than it plays, especially at the length of time it takes up on the screen. When you add in the plot contrivances that cluster around its finale, "Promised Land" concludes as an echo of a convincing film rather than the real deal.
MPAA rating: R for language
Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes
Playing: In limited release