1/10/2013 - A gas company looks to frack the heck out of a small town in search of natural gas in Promised Land, a twisty little tale with a quiet sense of humor.
Steve Butler (Matt Damon) is a rising superstar at Global Crosspower Solutions, the energy company where he works. He has a reputation for getting towns sitting on top of reserves of natural gas to sign leases fast and cheap and is poised to get a big promotion. But first he and partner Sue (Frances McDormand) have to sell a small town in Pennsylvania on the idea of letting their company pull gas from the shale beneath their town via fracking. At first, it seems like an easy sell — the farmers Steve and Sue approach are happy for the opportunity to pick up more cash (a little at first but potentially millions — or so he tells them — later on). But then local science teacher Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook) raises concerns at a community meeting about the dangers of fracking, like what it could do to the environment and their way of life. He calls for a community vote on the issue, which sends Steve scrambling.
Sue tells Steve not to worry, but then he spots a man driving around in a green truck with the name Superior Athena on it. An environmental presence, Steve suspects. Then one night at a bar while trying to meet and win over locals, Steven and Sue hear the man driving the truck, Dustin Noble (John Krasinski), tell his tale. His family gave the gas rights to Global, and, as a result, their farm was destroyed, he says, handing out anti-Global pamphlets and rallying opposition. Now Steve and Sue have the vote and the persuasive powers of the affable Dustin to worry about.
Meanwhile, Steve is perhaps thinking about making another sale while in town. He meets teacher Alice (Rosemary DeWitt) at a bar but doesn’t dive into a relationship right away. It seems as if he truly likes her but doesn’t want to get involved only to have to leave her — or some sort of internal struggle that causes him to look like his puppy was run over by a tractor when he sees Alice go out with Dustin.
Promised Land is at its best when it focuses on Steve, Sue and their pitch. As they come to town, they head to a local general store and buy some clothes to wear as they make visits to landowners. In an effort to look local, Sue leaves the suits in her luggage and dons flannel. For her, this is just a job and this is her uniform. But for Steve, his fleece vest and work shirts aren’t so far from his roots. He wears his grandfather’s boots and tells the people he signs up stories about his family’s history on the farm.
We sense that beneath the sales pitch, a part of Steve truly believes what he says, which is that rural America is dying and this lease represents a way for the farmers to cash in before it’s too late. As he explains later in the movie (and in terms that I suspect are the reason the movie is rated R), the money from Global is bleep you money. Bleep you to the bank calling in a loan, to the financial aid their kids would otherwise need for college, to the car dealer that would otherwise struggle to finance them. Steve says he watched his small town in Iowa die when a nearby plant closed down. This is their chance to save themselves, because they can’t save their way of life, he says.
Damon crafts a character who is, sure, a salesman but also a fairly decent guy who genuinely believes that what’s he’s doing serves a greater good, not just for the company but for the people he makes deals with. As evidence starts to suggest that not all of the fracking claims are as bogus as he initially believes, Steve is truly upset. He wants to be the guy who gets the towns wrapped up and the big new job but he doesn’t want to hurt people.
As you can imagine, McDormand is also good at these scenes. Their relationship reminded me of George Clooney and Anna Kendrick in Up In the Air — fellow travelers occasionally dealing with difficult people. They rib each other about local potential romantic interests — Alice for Steve and shop owner Rob (Titus Welliver) for Sue. Steve is good at what he does but not perfect; Sue is somewhat jaded but still dedicated. There is something just sort of engaging watching people work.
Where the movie doesn’t work so well is in its message and the way it plays out. After increasing amounts of speechifying, the story wraps up with a left turn that feels like a cop-out. Add to that the forced subplot about Steve and Alice and the movie feels weaker than it should with this collection of actors and the mostly smart writing that makes up the bulk of the film.
Promised Land is two-thirds a wry look at work and at the current state of our energy market but falls back a little too often on movie cliche. B-
Rated R for language. Directed by Gus Van Sant with a screenplay by John Krasinski and Matt Damon from a story by Dave Eggers, Promised Land is an hour and 46 minutes long and distributed by Focus Features.