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If you’ve been living under a rock—-and that rock isn’t harboring a trove of precious shale gas—-perhaps you haven’t heard of hydraulic fracking. In that case, Promised Land is here to help.
Directed by Gus Van Sant with a screenplay by Matt Damon and John Krasinski (while we’re name-dropping, Dave Eggers wrote the storyline), Promised Land traces the machinations of über-charming duo Steve Butler (Damon) and Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand), two corporate glad-handers on a quest to monopolize drilling land leases in western Pennsylvania. Along the way, we meet the good, wholesome yokels torn between the desperation of a post-manufacturing economy and concern for the health of the grasslands on which they farm, live, and raise their all-American children. But the corporate types meet resistance from high-school teacher and rural physics savant Frank Yates (a typically fantastic Hal Holbrook) and, before long, small-time environmental activist Dustin Noble (Krasinski, who, playing against type, allows his latent smugness free rein).
The first act, full of promising little performances from the locals—-most notably the always charming Rosemarie DeWitt, plus Sara Lindsey as a struggling single mother—-finds Butler and Thomason making headway on their quest to win over the townspeople with a condescending faux-folksiness bolstered by their straight-off-the-rack denim and barn jackets. Damon and McDormand share a convincing, winsome chemistry even in their predatory roles, though Damon especially works in a couple of registers: one moment a charming, eminently reasonable bearer of happy news, the next a slash-and-burn exec taking the piss out of a bribe-seeking town commissioner. (McDormand, parenting via long-distance phone calls, exudes a believable sympathy with Lindsey’s character.)
The relatively snappy script conveys how the promise of cash can be a warping force for citizens hit hard by the recession. But before long, the film’s hammer-meet-head politics become so overbearing you may find yourself rooting for the corporate raiders, if only for novelty’s sake. Damon and Krasinski, as screenwriters, clearly wish to elevate environmentalism out of the realm of “special interest,” to erase its status as a term of mockery, and to root it in the land and lives of real people. Sure, rednecks can be environmentalists too, but Promised Land telegraphs that point rather patronizingly over the film’s 106 minutes, and it becomes abundantly clear that the thing was dreamed up on coastal America, between the n+1 salons of Brooklyn and the studio boardrooms of Los Angeles.
American-flag porn peppers the movie, lemonade is sold by a golden-haired little girl not once but thrice, and before long Damon isn’t playing a role but delivering redeemed-executive monologues that sound like the actor’s own political pronouncements while Danny Elfman’s score proffers hyperidealistic punctuation. If the makers of Promised Land help catalyze the “national discussion” over fracking, then more power to them. In the meantime: skip the film, put on some Aaron Copland, surf on over to Mother Jones, and maybe drop the Sierra Club a $30 donation.