There’s an original idea located somewhere near (but not at) the heart of Promised Land: start with what would normally be an obvious storyline about a good environmentalist (Dustin Noble, played by John Krasinski) vs. a heartless corporate tool (Steve Butler, in the person of Matt Damon), but make the “villain” a fairly decent guy and the “hero” something of a jerk. Unfortunately, the script, by Damon and Krasinski themselves (from a story by Dave Eggers) can’t seem to figure out what to do with its own concept, and ultimately, by virtue of a third-act plot twist, it’s obliterated.
Promised Land begins beautifully, as Butler and his cohort Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand, matter-of-factly perfect) head into McKinley, PA to do their job for Global Crosspower Solutions, which is to convince the local farmers that they should lease their land to be drilled miles down into the bedrock, freeing the natural gas within (a process known as “fracking”), in exchange for a yearly fee and a percentage of the proceeds. Steve is the best at what he does–he’s just won a promotion–and it’s a pleasure to watch him and Sue go through their paces, stocking up on flannels and jargon so they’ll look like they belong, and signing up struggling families who can’t believe they’ve been sitting on money while their farms flounder. Steve flirts with schoolteacher Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt), Sue flirts with storeowner Rob (Titus Welliver), the signatures pour in, and everything seems to be going their way. Even a clumsy shakedown attempt by the town supervisor is easily batted away.
Then, at the town hall meeting, wise old science teacher Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook) rises to object to the leases, explaining to the town that fracking will kill their crops, their farm animals and the soil itself, because of the lethal chemicals that are pumped into the land as part of the drilling process. Somewhat unconvincingly, Frank has stacked the meeting with anti-fracking votes, and suddenly Steve and Sue are in for a fight.
Making matters worse for them is the arrival in town of Dustin, representing an environmental group no one’s ever heard of. Dustin is smug and self-satisfied, but he tells a good story about the destruction of his own family farm by fracking, and starts lining up support against the company. Also, he gets to Alice before Steve has a chance to ask her out.
Things are set up for a debate about the merits of fracking, with audience sympathies being pulled one way by the issue and another by the characters, but Promised Land never gets there. Unaccountably, Damon and Krasinski (and Gus Van Sant, brought in to direct when Damon’s schedule didn’t permit him to) portray Steve as having no response to Frank and Dustin’s charges, although learning those answers has to be Day 1 in any Fracking Lease School. Instead, Steve all but concedes that the anti-fracking forces are factually right, and argues only that the farmers are going bankrupt anyway, so they might as well get some cash on the way out. However honest that may be, it’s an idiotic position for the representative of a gas company to take, and as the movie goes on, we start to feel the filmmakers’ collective thumb pressing far too hard on the story’s scales.
Instead, Promised Land becomes the story of Steve becoming A Better Man, as the gentle rhythms and sheer goodness of McKinley reignite his soul. (The filmmakers have cited Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero as an influence.) The problem is, that’s a different movie–and a much more predictable one. (It’s also one that would have required more subtlety of characterization than this script offers.) Damon, Krasinski and Van Sant remove the teeth from their own film when the central action becomes Steve’s seeing the light–and they muddle things even more with their tricky plotting at the end. It isn’t that what happens is unconvincing (it’s very possibly based on true incidents, although one can’t imagine them playing out as they do here), but that it makes things far too easy for Steve. In the end, the most interesting character in the movie turns out to be Sue, who simply doesn’t care about the effect her actions will have on the natives’ lives as long as she can pay her own bills and raise her son.
Promised Land wastes a lot of talent. Although the script fails thematically, there’s plenty of sharp, well-paced dialogue along the way. Wearing his acting hat, Damon is expert at suggesting the flickers of conscience and uneasiness behind Steve’s assured smile, and he and McDormand are such a smooth team that one hopes this won’t be the last time they co-star. DeWitt and Welliver are charming in support, and Holbrook conveys Aged Wisdom without becoming a mere archetype. Krasinski’s role is necessarily the least developed, but he’s fine at being both idealistic and unsympathetic. Van Sant, too, as usual when he dons his “Hollywood director” garb, delivers a first-class piece of craftsmanship, without any of the pretensions found, most recently, in his Restless. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren, making his US debut, and composer Danny Elfman also provide strong, unshowy work.
Promised Land could have been a trenchant story about politics and social issues, or a tricky melodrama, or a low-key character study. Doing all three, though, would have required a more perfect sense of tone than the movie has on supply. Like Global Crosspower’s drilling, its script causes more mess than can be justified by the returns.Read more news and reviews from Mitch Salem at Showbuzzdaily.