At its best, Gus Van Sant’s “Promised Land” channels environmental politics into an agreeable drama about small town America facing down the forces of capitalist greed. In lesser moments it trumpets that tension with a complete disregard for the powers of subtlety. Co-written and starring Matt Damon and John Krasinski, the movie centers on the efforts of a corporation to gain drilling rights in a rural town, setting the stage for a classic showdown between environmentalism and commerciality. While the stakes are clearly drawn, with the potential of hydraulic fracturing to dilute the local water supply placed front and center, “Promised Land” can’t help but preach its cause in obvious ways that continually hold back an otherwise well-acted, swiftly paced drama.
An unofficial companion piece to “Gasland,” Josh Fox’s Oscar-nominated documentary about the largely unacknowledged dangers of fracking on unwitting farm communities, “Promised Land” complicates the issue by putting a likable face on the presumed bad guys in the equation: Steve (Damon) and Sue (Frances McDormand) arrive at the small town of McKinley as representatives of the fictional drilling company Global, eager to convince its citizens to sign a lucrative deal let the conglomerate drill there without discussing the details. They seem to understand the danger involved in fracking, which includes the injection of chemicals that can ruin fertile ground, but shrug it off as a workplace hazard.
Despite his affable demeanor, Steve initially comes across as a no-nonsense dealmaker eager to pay off the town’s mayor to let the deal pass. But the cool-headed corporate operative’s confidence gets tested at a town meeting, when retired Boeing engineer Frank (Hal Holbrook) voices his disdain for fracking, convincing a majority of the locals that they should put the deal to a vote. While Steve and the equally aggressive Sue struggle to push their agenda, the campaign is further complicated by the arrival of frumpy activist Dustin (Kraskinski), a grinning rabble-rouser eager to assure Global will lose.
So far, so engaging, but once “Promised Land” competently assembles its central conflict, the story has nowhere to go. For a while, Steve and Sue’s vain attempts to one-up the sly efforts of the fact-spouting foil Dustin, who arrives bearing tales of dead cattle and lives ruined by fracking, sustain an enjoyable comedic levity. Ultimately, though, “Promised Land” caves to pressures and stiffens up, with the Holbrook character delivering a weepy monologue about the purity of the land in a bid to pull at Steve’s heartstrings. If you’re wondering if Steve has second thoughts about the morality of his profession, consider this: When was the last time Matt Damon played a bad guy? (Answer: “The Departed,” but this is no crime movie.)
Needless to say, once “Promised Land” assembles its key ingredients the momentum stalls for good, stumbling further by playing up a treacly romance between Damon’s character and a local elementary school teacher played by Rosemarie Dewitt. Divided between the task at hand and his evident humanity, Steve’s odd positioning as the leading man in spite of his ignoble calling makes for compelling viewing until it gets blatantly obvious that he’ll cave. The screenplay’s intelligent raison d’être — outing the corporate agenda behind fracking and the way it preys on gullible blue collar towns — never quite merges with the flimsy storyline.
Still, the weighty context makes “Promised Land” a substantial step forward in terms of thematic complexity for Van Sant after the amateurish “Restless.” Tackling a decidedly old-fashioned story by Dave Eggers, Van Sant’s straightforward direction makes up for a lack of narrative mastery by focusing on character depth rather than complex filmmaking trickery. While the chemistry between Damon and Dewitt fizzles, the former’s continually rocky back-and-forths with his cantankerous co-worker avoid turning either of them into stereotypes. Convinced they can justify the work with the generous paychecks that await them, their state of denial is comically represented by a routine inability to start their car as they cruise around town begging for votes.
It’s certainly fun to watch them flounder, but the movie follows suit once it tries to get real by pushing homespun values to the forefront with cheap nuggets of wisdom (“You can’t lose a game that’s still being played”) — and consolidates most of them into a closing speech in which one character addresses the entire town while weepy close-ups accentuate each point. As clichés go, this one is particularly gratuitous; in Frank Capra’s heyday, it might have gotten a pass, but with the contemporary setting it breaks the illusion of watching a genuine conflict in favor of sentimental moralizing, pushing a message more crassly than the corporate menace at its center.
Criticwire grade: B-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Focus Features releases “Promised Land” on December 28, a busy time of the year for fall films, which means the movie will face an uphill battle in terms of its commercial prospects. Mixed reviews and audience tendencies to avoid ideology-heavy dramas also make “Promised Land” a tough sell.