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I give this movie’s costars and creators, Matt Damon and John Krasinski, credit for making a “message movie” as palatable and entertaining as Promised Land. With appealing actors and an attractive location it hums along pretty nicely…but ultimately the film has to show its hand and that’s when the story disintegrates. As writers, and concerned citizens, Damon and Krasinski may be content to expose moviegoers to the dangers of fracking—drilling for natural gas underground—but they’ve fallen short of making a really good film.

Damon is likable as a savvy corporate representative who, along with an equally sharp colleague (Frances McDormand), is dispatched to a rural community to persuade its beleaguered farmers to sign over drilling rights to their land. This proves to be tougher than he anticipated. There’s a light romantic subplot involving Rosemarie DeWitt, which serves as relief from the central narrative. Krasinski turns up as an outside organizer who tries to counter Damon’s efforts and expose the underside of the company he represents.

The screenplay, based on a story by Dave Eggers, isn’t bad. It imbues its characters with colorful traits and gives them animated dialogue exchanges. But I didn’t buy the crucial story twist that climaxes the film. It’s completely inconsistent with the rest of the picture. Damon has this job because he’s supposed to be a smart cookie with lots of experience; the writers would have us believe that he turns naïve and foolish overnight.      

Hal Holbrook, Titus Welliver, and other talented actors do their best, and director Gus Van Sant maintains a lively pace. But Promised Land is a polemic posing as a movie, and it can’t quite pull off the ruse.

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