Would you buy hydrofracking from this man? In “Promised Land,” Matt Damon plays Steve Butler, an executive from a natural gas company who goes to a small town to get farmers to sign drilling rights leases. Don’t be too fast to boo. Steve is convinced he’s not a bad guy.
The thing “Promised Land” does exceptionally well is in not having its main character waft into town with a flowing black cape and brimstone on his breath. Butler knows the plight of small agricultural communities all too well, and honestly believes he’s offering them financial salvation. And a lot of the townspeople think so too.
The audience is likely to get it early though. The small town is too damn Norman Rockwell, and you won’t have to sit through too much before you realize that this is going to be a modern take on the old don’t-sell-the-farm movie. By the time a too-friendly local politician solicits a bribe, which Steve is willing to pay, we should be smelling the coffee. Fracking is a swear word on "Battlestar Galactica" and you know that can't be good.
Nonetheless, things seem to be going Steve’s way, as he and associate Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand) encounter little resistance on their door-to-door quest. Some of Damon’s scenes with McDormand have a pleasant and unexpected Cary Grant/Rosalind Russell vibe. It’s only when Steve shows up at a town meeting hung-over and ill-prepared to do we sense the first chink in the natural gas company’s armor. Forgetting the fact that it’s actually asking a lot of the audience to believe this guy would make this sort of mistake, “Promised Land” is determined to make Steve look like an underdog. This is a hard sell. Would Jimmy Stewart have worked for an oil company?
As a science teacher who’s actually a retired engineer with a doctoral degree who teaches for fun and doesn’t like fracking, Hal Holbrook brings his patented earthy gravitas. It’s John Krasinski, as an advocate from a small environmental group no one’s heard of, who emerges to be Damon and McDormand’s biggest headache.
As Dustin Noble, Krasinski is Satanically charming, right down to going after attractive schoolteacher Rosemarie DeWitt (“The Odd Life of Timothy Green”) whom Steve was also starting to pursue. Glib, smooth and resourceful, Dustin plays the merry prankster at Steve's expense very well and is soon doing the unthinkable—winning the battle for the hearts and minds of the townspeople.
Director Gus Van Sant, who launched Matt Damon with "Good Will Hunting," seems to have spent years rebounding from his disastrous remake of Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” and this may help rebuild his credibility. This is a well-acted and thoroughly competently made movie, although the tempo flags too much in the late second act. Danny Elfman’s score is unremarkable and the acoustic guitar songs used as background to several scenes border on dreary.
Damon and Krasinski, who wrote this somewhat talky screenplay from a story by Dave Eggers, have opted for a relatively quiet drama over making a thriller, though there are a couple of nefarious twists and turns. Do not expect assassination attempts or bugged phones, however. Clearly the writers have an ax to grind, though they try hard not to openly preach. There is no question as to where their sympathies lie and the oil and gas industry is not going to be fond of this movie. As to the twists and turns, once the big one comes (no, there will be no spoilers) the final one is inevitable.
"Promised Land" is now playing at theaters across the Capital District, including The Regal Cinemas Latham Circle Mall 10, The Regal Cinemas Clifton Park Stadium 10 & RPX, The Regal Cinemas Colonie Center Stadium 13, The Regal Cinemas Crossgates Stadium 18 & IMAX and the Spectrum 7 in Albany.