A quietly absorbing if finally somewhat dubious drama about an unlikely anti-corporate crusader, “Promised Land” uses a familiar story arc to decry corruption in the energy industry, specifically the controversial natural-gas drilling technique known as “fracking.” Yet the subtler, more resonant warning sounded by Gus Van Sant’s latest picture lies in its mournful portrait of an economically depressed farming community, evoking an imperiled way of American life in microcosm. Although too dramatically underpowered to achieve more than modest commercial impact, this well-acted, minor-key passion project for star-producer-scribe Matt Damon could parlay heated op-ed coverage into a respectable arthouse showing.
Set to open Dec. 28 for a weeklong awards-qualifying run before it opens wider in January, the Focus Features release has already come under attack by representatives of the energy corporations it critiques. Some of the film’s early detractors (few of whom are likely to have seen it yet) have pointed out that it was partly funded by Image Nation Abu Dhabi, the implication being that the United Arab Emirates, the world’s third largest oil exporter and a recent backer of several Hollywood pics, may have a vested interest in suppressing U.S. gas production.
The nature of Damon’s personal investment in the project is less mysterious, given his own extensive environmental advocacy. Damon previously co-scripted Van Sant’s “Good Will Hunting” and “Gerry,” and “Promised Land” reps an intriguing extended collaboration between the actor and John Krasinski, who also co-wrote, co-starred and co-produced. Together they have crafted a sturdy, conventional drama of conscience that acknowledges the current era of economic uncertainty, suggesting a non-thriller version of “Michael Clayton,” or perhaps “Erin Brockovich” as told from a sympathetic villain’s perspective. Either way, for a movie so soberly attuned to environmental ethics and scientific minutiae, it’s less dry than one would expect.
Thirty-eight-year-old Steve Butler (Damon) is a top salesman for Global, a $9 billion fracking company that sends him to small towns nationwide to buy land from locals for the purposes of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking — a drilling process in which the soil is blasted with pressurized chemicals to release natural gas. As he and his associate Sue (Frances McDormand, dependably snappy) go door-to-door, obtaining signatures in exchange for assurances of economic salvation, Steve harbors conflicted feelings about a job he’s clearly good at. Himself a farm boy turned big-city professional, he retains an honest affection for the blue-collar work ethic and humble, salt-of-the-earth spirit he encounters, and he’s painfully aware that he’s effectively gutting entire communities under the pretext of revitalizing them.
Steve’s moral reservations catch up with him on a job in Pennsylvania farm country, where a whip-smart high-school science teacher (a fine Hal Holbrook) successfully challenges Global’s agenda and calls for the town to vote on the company’s proposition rather than blithely accept it. An even peskier obstacle arrives in the form of Dustin Noble (Krasinski), a dogged activist who launches an anti-Global campaign, teaching locals that fracking is not only laying waste to a proud agricultural tradition, but also contributing to air/water pollution and killing livestock (problems examined at length in Josh Fox’s 2010 docu “GasLand”).
Once slated to direct, Damon invests his misguided if fundamentally decent Everyman with a low-key, world-weary intelligence, suggesting a salesman whose silver tongue has grown heavy over time; the actor generates a nicely tense screen rapport with Krasinski, ideally cast as a grassroots charmer who knows just how to get Steve’s goat. The strong ensemble also boasts sharp character work by Scoot McNairy, Titus Welliver and Tim Guinee as locals with varying opinions on the drilling issue, while the casting of real-life residents of Avonsmore, Penn., as extras adds considerably to the film’s texture.
Van Sant orchestrates the slow-brewing drama with ease and assurance, establishing a rich sense of place through d.p. Linus Sandgren’s solemnly beautiful images of dirt roads, open fields, ramshackle houses and mom-and-pop shops, as well as the director’s signature time-lapse shots of overcast skies. Ably complemented by Danny Elfman’s score, these visuals coalesce into an understated and affecting portrait of rural decay that could hit home for many viewers.
Yet the authenticity of Van Sant’s portraiture has the effect of exposing a certain inauthenticity at the story’s core, and not just because Steve and Dustin’s professional opposition leads them into a contrived rivalry for the affections of a fetching schoolteacher (Rosemarie DeWitt, lovely in a thankless role). The film’s generally thoughtful rumination on corporate neglect and personal responsibility suddenly shifts, at the last minute, into a one-sided, cards-on-the-table statement that cheapens, rather than underscores, the seriousness of the issues at stake. By manipulating their story to advance the cynical notion that you really can’t trust anyone, the filmmakers inadvertently beg the question why their own motives should be so above suspicion.