As far as Hollywood-agenda films go, Promised Land is a rather drowsy Sunday afternoon sermon.
Its message about the perils of fracking to the environment and to those lives is almost always at the film's fore, yet the overall presentation is more dismissive finger wagging than damning rhetoric.
For a filmmaker such as Gus Van Sant (Milk), this is pretty restrained.
The liberal-light tone of the film is embodied by its Capra-esque protagonist, Steve Butler (Matt Damon), a good person saddled with a weasly job. As a salesman for a natural gas company, Steve offers a well-practiced spin for residents of struggling farm towns, promising riches for all in the company's plan to buy up land for drilling purposes. Steve knows the financial windfall he's selling is more exaggeration than truth, but he lives with these lies because of his past. He grew up in a dying farm town and truly believes the only hope such communities have in these economic times is through these offers, generous or not.
"I'm not selling them natural gas," he tells his boss, "I'm selling them the only way they have to get back."
Despite a subdued moral quandary about his career, Steve excels at his job and his assignment is going smoothly for him and his work partner Sue (Frances McDormand) as they leapfrog across the county and secure the land rights from families desperate for financial security.
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Then they encounter Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook), a high school science teacher leery of fracking and their company and armed with Googled statistics to back up his suspicions. Frank's speech at a town meeting creates a stir among the townsfolk to reconsider their opinion of the natural gas company, and becomes a major concern for Steve and Sue. Their troubles grow worse when mysterious environmentalist Dustin Noble (John Krasinski, at times channeling his everyman Jim from The Office) appears with anti-fracking posters in hand and launches a one-man crusade against them.
Complicating matters is that Steve has also broken what must be some sort of company code of conduct by falling for one of the women in town, Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt).
Clearly, this movie marches down the path you expect — Damon's murderous turn in The Talented Mr. Ripley nearly 15 years behind him, is he even acceptable as a villain at this point in his career? — and so Steve must arrive at the point of reconsidering everything about his career: without that moral epiphany there isn't much of a central message to Promised Land, other than a few righteous and polished soliloquies.
And speaking of, Holbrook offers a nice one at that, standing on a sun-lit porch as he gives Steve cause to rethink what he's doing: "You're a good man, Steve. You have so many of the qualities we need these days. I just wish ... you weren't doing this. You came here and offered us money figuring you were helping us and all we had to do to get it was be willing to scorch the earth under our feet."
Steve has a nice speech later, and so does Alice, after she learns the truth about her new boyfriend.
It's a good cast, and that goes a long way in selling Promised Land, which was cowritten by Damon and Krasinski and based on a story by celebrated author Dave Eggers.
The drama can be funny and romantic and occasionally moving. It has a bigger message about fracking and the environment, and big companies and small towns, and while Promised Land is not a great film, such ambition is not its intention. It's a drama designed to make you think, and perhaps re-evaluate, without being too preachy.
Directed by Gus Van Sant. Screenplay by John Krasinski and Matt Damon, based on a story by Dave Eggers. A Focus Features release, playing at Rave Franklin Park and at Fallen Timbers. Rated R for Language. Running time: 106 minutes.
Critic's rating: ***
Steve ....................Matt Damon
Contact Kirk Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.