Promised Land | B
Because it's a bold-faced liberal polemic in the guise of a popcorn picture, many of my highfalutin critical brethren have turned up their noses at Promised Land, despite the fact that its ecological message must resonate deep in their Sunday New York Times-reading, Sumatran free-trade coffee-swilling souls. There is nothing the NPR crowd seems to hate more than having their ideas regurgitated to them without the comfortable distance of a high-concept premise or measured genre tropes to obfuscate the meaning behind layers of symbolism. That said, Promised Land is a dammed entertaining little flick, one that manages to slip the poison pill of its rough-and-tumble politicking inside the candy coating of a Heartland fish-out-of-water farce.
Matt Damon co-wrote and produced, and stars as natural gas conglomerate frontman Steve Butler, an innately decent guy who does the dirty work of peddling false hope and the promise of easy money to rural communities in dire need of something more than hope. Along with his more bluntly jaundiced partner Sue, (Frances Mcdormand), Steve rolls from town to town trying to sell the townsfolk on the massive profits to be gained from the vast natural gas reserves just under their feet, which will be extracted with the controversial deep drilling process called "fracking." Despite a highly questionable safety and environmental record, these smooth-talking salesman pitch drilling as the best available financial recourse for areas hollowed out by plant closures and the crunch of factory farming. When this slick pitchman hits rustic Mckinley, Pa., many distressed local folks are ready to sign on the dotted line, until silver-throated science teacher and town wise man Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook) calls a meeting where he preaches the danger of water contamination to the flock. Making matters worse is sharp and appealing environmentalist Dustin Noble (co-writer John Krasinski), who busily undermines every promise and friendly gesture that Butler puts out, even putting the moves on lovely, earthy schoolmarm (Rosemarie Dewitt) that Steve has been doggedly pursuing. Faced with a looming town-wide vote, pressure from his bosses to close the deal, and with his own, expanding conscious, our semi-hero must find a way through the haze.
In some regards, Promised Land is a hamfisted and cloying salute to old Hollywood hokum merchants like Stanley Kramer and Frank Capra who made their living on none-too-subtle "message" movies. I think the similarities are intentional, and in choosing his Good Will Hunting collaborator Gus Van Sant to take the director's reins, Damon found someone capable of threading the needle between mainstream pap and gritty indie realness. Maybe someone like Steven Soderberg would have found a more cynical take on the material, and done a better job disguising the long con game in the plot, or masking the unvarnished sentimentalism. Yet this is not a movie for the converted; its intent is to hook the average or underinformed viewer and deliver a payload of information. Whether you agree with the message — or the tactics of delivering it — there is an entertaining film to be found here, and the talented cast, led by Damon's easy charm, makes you believe.