We're all instinctively wary of salesman, and guys like our man Steve Butler is why. Bearing critical information to which we're not privy, feeling utterly familiar despite representing an agenda almost certainly radically opposed to our own, presenting the case so smoothly we feel like we're engaged in a conversation; heck, even this guy's name is ordinary. Walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, swims like a duck ~ must be a duck, right? Of course not. There's that other expression: a wolf in sheep's clothing.
Except for the fact that our man Steve is, in fact, a duck. Born of a small town that declined to play when Big Corporation offered its wares and then took them elsewhere, leaving it the modern-day equivalent of the railroad-skipped ghost towns of yore, Steve knows all too well the ramifications for his prospects (how apt a term here) should they decline him.
But it's not so easy a sell: Steve is selling financial security borne of securing permission to engage in hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking", and like said railroads of yore, progress can bring a steep price (American tort law, as it happens, evolved from the cases and settlements regarding the railroads' incredible damage ~ learned that in law school). Such activities are inherently dangerous, and it's Steve's job to minimize focus there and maximize focus on the sweet deal he's making the townsfolk.
Ah yes, the townsfolk. A gentle, simple people they are, gullible and easily swayed by Steve's earnest interest in their welfare and Everyman costume of sturdy jeans, flannel shirt, down vest. He knows how to dress like them, because he is them, as he's so fond of reminding them. Look, he's even wearing his magic boots from days gone by, boots of history and of legend, boots of his people, just like them, just like him.Things are going great.
Enter a skeptical schoolteacher who monkey-wrenches Steve's momentum, attracting the arrival of an affable environmentalist with his own story: of being one of such townsfolk who trusted a Steve, and paid for it mightily. As Steve is a on a mission to save people from the ghost town (disproportionate compensation? meh), our man Dustin is on a mission to bring them the aforementioned critical information to which they're not privy. Dustin knows all too well the ramifications for his counterparts should they accept Steve, and he's going to see to it that they follow his lead instead. Inconceivable!
Thus begins the debate, the great battle for hearts and minds. Where does risk meet reward? And what is fair compensation for whom, when we're talking about so much money it qualifies as being called "fu*k you money"? And who's the verb and who's the subject in that expression? And where does nobility become folly, and authenticity become mercenary? Who's fooling whom? Who's the sheep, and who's the wolf ~ and what of the duck? Promised Land wraps numerous shades of grey like ribbons around two stark, jarring, unnerving truths. Happily for us, they're like the pill wrapped in the sweetest of sugar.
Just as "Good Will Hunting" brought substance and strength without spike, with "Promised Land" Matt Damon and Gus Van Sant weave an equally serious tale with a similarly easygoing vibe (Damon's co-writer here being John Krasinski, ably receiving the baton from Ben Affleck). While never igniting the high intensity of "The China Syndrome" or the emotional desperation of "Erin Brockovich" or "Silkwood", "Promised Land" gives us an excellent movie night now while laying out the complexity of the elements that we may be prepared later when Steve ~ or Dustin ~ comes a'calling.
Story: An accomplished corporate salesman finds himself surprisingly challenged in convincing a small town to authorize his company's mining thanks to a high school teacher and a clever environmentalist.
Starring: Matt Damon, Frances McDormand, John Krasinski, Hal Holbrook, Rosemarie DeWitt
Directed by: Gus Van Sant
MPAA: R for language