As easy as it is to see where Promised Land is going, the journey there throws a few curves.
Matt Damon leads the Promised Land cast, playing a salesman for an energy company that’s seeking to extract the natural gas beneath the rural community of McKinley.
Damon’s Steve Butler represents a giant energy corporation, Global Crosspower Solutions. He and his sales partner, Frances McDormand’s Sue Thomason, arrive in McKinley with a record of success and certainty about how their latest sales trip will go. What’s more, Butler, a slick pitchman who regularly under-compensates the signees of natural gas leases, is a corporate star being considered for executive status.
Promised Land is Damon doing an issue movie, much like his Ocean’s Eleven, Twelve and Thirteen co-star George Clooney is fond of doing. The issue is natural gas and the potential that its extraction from shale rock formations, a water- and chemical-intensive process called hydraulic fracturing, poses for the contamination of groundwater, land and air.
Steve and Sue arrive unobtrusively in McKinley. They immediately patronize a country store, Rob’s Guns, Groceries, Gas and Guitars, picking up some new wardrobe there that will help them look like locals.
Steve and Sue are practical business people. They’ve got a job to and they do it well. Promised Land follows them into McKinley homes. They deliver their meant-to-ingratiate introductory lines smoothly. Their arguments are compelling and, naturally, manipulative. Global Crosspower Solutions, valued at $9 billion, is the likely, ultimate winner.
Damon’s Steve earnestly believes he’s a good guy and, in the sliding scheme of things, he’s a better guy than many. The script, based on a story by Dave Eggers and co-written by Damon and one of his Promised Land co-stars, John Krasinski, includes Steve’s small-town back story and the economic hardships that contributed to the loss of his family’s farm.
The crack Global Crosspower Solutions sales team encounters unexpected turbulence after an elderly high-school science teacher dares to question the wisdom of leasing the small community’s land to the big energy company.
“It’s called fracking,” Frank Yates says during a town hall meeting in the McKinley High gym. “It’s not nearly as simple as what Supervisor Richards has just laid out.”
It’s a pleasure to watch Hal Holbrook, the 87-year-old stage and screen veteran who plays the doubting Yates, flex his seasoned thespian skills in Promised Land. His quietly commanding scenes are among the movie’s best.
On the other hand, Krasinski’s character, Dustin Noble, a lone environmental activist who rolls into town with the intention of obstructing Global Crosspower Solutions, is thoroughly obnoxious, not amusing in the way the screenwriters apparently intended him to be.
Directed by Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting, Milk), Promised Land is a cinematically well-crafted and acted but nonetheless shallow exploration. It makes muted impact.