A social-issue drama handled in a very human way, “Promised Land” presents its environmental concerns in a clear, upfront manner but hits some narrative and character bumps in the second half that weaken the impact of this fundamentally gentle, sympathetic work.
Collaborating on a screenplay for director Gus Van Sant for the third time, after “Good Will Hunting” and “Gerry,” Matt Damon stars as a natural gas company rep who encounters more resistance than he bargained for when trying to buy up drilling rights on struggling farmers’ land. This is something of a Frank Capra story preoccupied with the idea of what the United States used to be or is supposed to be, but the film isn’t quite rich or full-bodied enough to entirely pay off.
An Iowa farm boy turned big-city businessman, Damon’s Steve Butler receives a promotion at the outset but then embarks on a mission to scoop up drilling rights for Global Crosspower Solutions on farms surrounding a declining Pennsylvania town. Given the economic hardship in the area, Steve views his mission as an easy dunk but is prepared to slip a fat brown envelope under the table to the right town elders when necessary.
Steve’s confidence stems to a great extent from his own experience of seeing his own hometown, and his family’s longtime farm, disappear almost overnight; he loves and misses the old way of life in small towns, the tight-knit communities where everyone knew each other and pitched in for the common good. He’s a better pitchman as a result, understanding the needs of these folks, how to talk to them and convince them that the only way to avoid otherwise inevitable financial ruin is to take the fracking money.
The downside is the potential environmental damage, particularly for the contamination of the underground water that can lead to poisoned crops and animals; much is made of a photograph of dead cattle littered about some pasture land. Steve, who arrives in McKinley with sales partner Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand), knows how to stress the positive and minimize the negative to locals who are basically eager to cash in. But they hit a road bump in the form of venerable retired teacher and career scientist Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook), whose calmly expressed views can scarcely be ignored.
The film’s initial stretch is its best. The town is presented in a fair-minded, reasonable, detailed way, a place populated by people with their own problems and opinions but also with open minds; town meetings are well attended, and, in the durable old American manner, there is the desire to work things out.
The irony is that Steve is offering a quick fix that will change the nature of the land, and the lives of the locals, forever. He presents it as a do-or-die decision, and he might be right. But the cost, versus the immediate profit, must be weighed.
For a well-mannered, career-conscious guy, Steve behaves in ways that make him something of an enigma. He’s tempted but properly holds back from jumping right into the sack with local gal Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt), who lives by herself on a nice local farm and isn’t shy about her desire to share it with a man. But Steve drinks too much and really loses it when a smooth but ultra-aggressive environmentalist, Dustin Noble (Damon’s co-writer John Krasinski), rolls into town and very quickly turns popular opinion against Global.
Steve is perplexing because he has no counterattack, no ready response to the ideas and tactics employed by the rangy, upbeat Dustin. You’d think the handbook of any big industry company like Global would feature a big chapter on how to deal with environmentalists and other opposing forces. But Steve flails about like a petulant kid who just got his allowance taken away, not expected behavior from someone who just got a promotion, and his dejected, pissy reaction to everything quickly saps sympathy and interest in the character.
The script’s other significant deficiency lies in the utter lack of development of the Sue character. McDormand’s knack for snappy, bossy retorts amuses for a while, but over the long haul — especially when Steve runs into a ditch — one would expect not only support but some aggressive know-how from a character who’s obviously been on the job longer and should know the ropes better than her younger partner. A revision devoted exclusively to strengthening and deepening this character would have been greatly worthwhile.
A late-on twist proves genuinely surprising but feels a bit cheap, coming off as a screenwriting device rather than something that seems organic and of a piece with the overall concerns of the film, which are otherwise genuine and sincere.