(by Dustin Putman
Like its setting, the rural farming community of McKinley, "Promised Land" is sleepy and decidedly unhurried, but also as comfortable as a warm blanket. A fictional drama about the very real practice of fracking, a resource extraction process that has come under fire for its potential danger in water contamination, the film stands as simultaneously timeless and timely. In directing an original screenplay by John Krasinski and Matt Damon, based on a story by Dave Eggers, Gus Van Sant (2008's "Milk") has made what he has described as his "Capra movie," and one can see that all over its narrative blueprint. Like Capra's best, sentimentality is achieved while sappiness is dodged—a tricky juggling of tone and mood that keeps just on the right side of low-key. This isn't to say there aren't pitfalls to match the successes—for one, it sure does move at its own meandering speed—but it is to say that "Promised Land" is gentle and affirming in spite of its imperfections. Article continues below
A corporate-climbing salesman for natural gas company Global Crosspower, Steve Butler (Matt Damon) arrives in the quaint town of McKinley with sales partner Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand) to convince the residents to allow them to drill on their land for a sum of money. The promise is that each of them are sitting on a potential goldmine (not true), and the goal is to culminate in a town hall vote (not that this will make any difference). Even as Steve insists he's a good person, the mistruths within his job have begun to weigh on him—a fact that is temporarily swept under the rug with the arrival of Dustin Noble (John Krasinski), an environmentalist from Nebraska whose grassroots motives are to expose the dark underbelly of fracking and drive Global out of McKinley.
"Promised Land" could potentially be the poster child for clean, proficient writing and directing. Neither Krasinski and Damon in their script, nor Van Sant in his filmmaking prowess, are attempting to reinvent the wheel, and yet what they have made is as likable and thoughtful as it is conventionally home-spun. Steve, who grew up in Iowa and is now looking at a hefty promotion to Vice President, could very well be on the precipice of a huge payday and a career watermark, but as he gets to know the people of McKinley, he finds himself empathizing with them. Most are gung-ho about giving up land with the promise of eventual millions, but it's all a ruse. Steve and Sue are lying to them, twisting the truth to get what they want from them. Sue reconciles that it is "just a job," but Steve isn't so sure his responsibilities shouldn't run deeper than that. In the midst of this crisis of conscience, the film rustles up an adversary, Dustin Noble, who blends in with the townfolk by singing a mean cover of Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark" at Open-Mic Night, and a love interest, schoolteacher Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt), who grows increasingly hip to Global's crooked ways.
Matt Damon (2011's "We Bought a Zoo") is the steadfast, if morally teeter-tottering, anchor as Steve Butler, a nice guy with a questionable job. From his opening scene, where he seals a business lunch with a true story about his small-town roots and how he's gotten to where he is today, Damon is convincing and in command; he's such a solid actor that one almost takes his natural skill for granted. As partner Sue, Frances McDormand (2011's "Transformers: Dark of the Moon") is a welcome force in her every role, and that is precisely what she lives up to here. As for Dustin Noble, a fellow interloper whose intentions may or may not be on the up-and-up, John Krasinski (2012's "Big Miracle") superbly embodies that of a well-intentioned bleeding heart with motives far less black and white than what they at first seem. In a way, it is he who lingers longest in the memory, a supporting player who makes a mark tough to shake.
Photographed by Linus Sandgren with an understanding of the bustling by-ways running through the country and usually around the pastoral communities where no one would bother to stop if they didn't already live there, "Promised Land" is an innately hopeful drama that pleases by not trying too hard while hitting all the necessary emotional beats along the way. Director Gus Van Sant isn't about to pretend that cynicism doesn't exist—isn't that one of the consequences of what natural gas companies do?—but he also has faith that purity and honesty in the world will still prevail. It's seen in the little girl who sits outside the town hall meeting, selling cups of lemonade for a quarter apiece and not a cent more, and it's seen in Steve, who arrives at a make-or-break place in the third act where he finally knows what must be done. "Promised Land" moves at an unassuming, surprisingly intoxicating pace, aware of the ebbs and flows and overall qualities that come with living outside the big cities. If only for a few hours, it's a place worth visiting.