If the narrative of the modern-day salesman in fiction is that of a man who believes in his business but finds his faith shaken once the white lies of his trade begin to grow, a man who loses his moral compass and finds himself along the way, then “Promised Land” doesn’t stray far from that mold. And at the crossroads of America, if big business represents greed, well then small-town communities must clearly represent strength and resolve. It’s not that “Promised Land,” directed by Gus Van Sant (in conservative “Milk” and “Good Will Hunting” mode), and written by leads Matt Damon and John Krasinski (based on a story by Dave Eggers), is cliché (though it sometimes is), it’s that it takes a familiar arc and puts a modern spin on it without providing anything substantially new, or, for that matter, quite selling its message all the way home.
A cross between a more dramatic “Local Hero” — a 1983 comedy about a rich texas oilman who sends in a team to buy an entire Scottish village — and a much more dialed down and muted Frank Capra film, the story follows Steve Butler (Damon), a salesman quickly moving up the corporate ladder at the $9 billion dollar company Global Crosspower Solutions. Butler is one of the star salesman on the West Coast because, as he explains, he’s from small-town Iowa. He understands people, their problems (farmlands are in decline), and he knows that hydraulic fracturing for natural gas may not only get them rich, but that for most of these families, it may be their only option.
While Butler truly believes his mission — help save the farms of America and avoid the recessions and hardships that hit his town when the local Caterpillar plant was shuttered — he’s also impressing the higher ups by cheating the locals out of the true value of their natural gas, all while bribing and buying off mayors in order to get them to cooperate. And so as Butler is about to be promoted, he arrives with his sales partner, Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand), in a rural town hit hard by the economic decline of recent years. The two outsiders, pros at their job (who try and dress the part to fit in by buying flannel and such), assume the local citizens will easily accept their company’s offer and sell them drilling rights to their properties, which will come as much-needed financial relief.
But what appears to be another line-’em-up and knock-’em-down gig is complicated when a respected local school teacher, Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook), objects to their plans and rallies the citizens in a town hall meeting, encouraging them to think long and hard before they sell their souls for a buck and potentially ruin the land they’ve labored so hard for over the years, a lot of which has been passed down through generations. When the top brass get wind of this complication, Butler starts to feel the pressure and begins to unravel. His frustrations reach a boiling point when a smooth grassroots environmentalist named Dustin Noble (played by John Krasinski) rolls into town and raises the stakes even higher.
Pitched somewhere between an idealist and asshole, Butler’s never faced a true obstacle in his entire life, and his true colors begin to show when Noble’s meddling causes him further aggravation. Things also get personal when Noble starts winning over Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt), a local school teacher who has been Butler’s object of affection (and in a way, acts as his conscience). Butler’s oft-repeated phrase is “I’m not a bad guy,” and of course, he says it to convince himself as much as anyone else that he’s doing the righteous thing.
But this moral push and pull becomes strained over the second and third acts, as one simpleton townsperson (played by Lucas Black) buys a slick car after he signs a Global Corp deal with Butler (months and months before he may see a dime), the environmentalist wins over the town with karaoke, and Alice even goes out on a date with him, much to Butler’s chagrin. The odds stack up against Butler and the dutiful, but made-of-harder-stuff Thomason, and the cracks start to show in the salesman’s conviction, which is perhaps built on shakier ground than he originally knew.
And just when it looks like there’s light at the end of their tunnel on this assignment (slight **spoiler alert**) an unfortunate third act decision — the environmentalist is discredited and then a shadier corporate plot is revealed — degrades the narrative, and the moral shades of gray turn black and white. This is of course to force Butler’s hand, show him that his convictions are built on lies, but the screenplay really overtips itself here. Several monologues, including the “fuck you money” one which gets Damon punched in the face, are simply too forced, contrived and self-aware. (slight **spoiler ends**)
While politically some are trying to describe the picture as a consequences-of-fracking-drama, hydraulic fracking is just the boogeyman in the background (and as the filmmakers discussed recently, in earlier drafts it was an entirely different political issue). Initially appearing like a sister film to “Good Will Hunting” in tone, a few artsy establishing shots and the same angelic, choral score by composer Danny Elfman, “Promised Land” quickly becomes its own thing though there are shades of similarity (including sobering transitional montages set to Elliott Smith-y new folk by the The Milk Carton Kids).
Co-starring Titus Welliver and Scoot McNairy, director Gus Van Sant must have had a difficult road. Originally slated to be Damon’s directorial debut, he dropped out due to scheduling conflicts and Van Sant had five weeks to step in and get prepped. But blame, if we’re going to use that word, shouldn’t fall on his shoulders, as the filmmaker does an admirable job and keeps things simple as they should be. But “Promised Land” just can’t quite convince; it’s a story about a man who takes an unexpected detour when too many ugly truths break the illusion and facade he has built up for himself, but it often hits contrived and disingenuous notes that leave blemishes on a picture so well-intentioned and earnest about exploring the heart of a people.
While ostensibly an intimate portrait about relatable values, community, big business and identity, “Promised Land” is an interesting examination of the heartland of America, using this story as a greater launching pad to explore the fundamental conflicts of people. But, one affected and just-slightly overdone moment after another leads to a predictable character arc for the soul of Damon’s character. It’s Middle America vs. big bad corporate America, and while the (not so) “bad guy” predictably finds salvation in salt-of-the-earth people, “Promised Land” often leaves a sour taste in your mouth. [C]