Matt Damon reteams with his “Good Will Hunting” director Gus Van Sant for “Promised Land,” a movie that tackles a tough energy-vs.-environment issue but winds up becoming an optimistic story of conscientious citizenship vs. corporate greed reminiscent of classic Frank Capra.
And just as Damon collaborated with friend and co-star Ben Affleck on that 1997 film that won them a writing Oscar, he now cowrites with friend and co-star John Krasinski (“The Office”) from a story by John Eggers (“Away We Go”) about former country boy turned corporate salesman Steve Butler (Damon), who's sent by his big-energy employers to procure drilling rights from the residents of a small middle-America farming town that's suffering the effects of today's damaged economy.
But what seems like an easy sell for Butler and his sales partner and friend Sue Thomason (a savvy, funny and engaging Frances McDormand) becomes complicated when respected local schoolteacher Frank Yates (an effortlessly forceful Hal Holbrook) urges the townspeople to weigh the attractive prospects of financial relief against the distinct possibility of future environmental consequences.
The town soon becomes divided over whether or not to allow one of the largest energy corporations in the country to extract gas from shale formations underneath its community through the controversial process of hydraulic fracturing, known as “fracking.” There's the argument that the chemicals used in the process can contaminate groundwater and in turn be detrimental to life above ground.
Further complications arise when cagey environmental activist Dustin Noble (Krasinski) arrives in town to counter Butler and Thomason's efforts to win over the townspeople with some winning ways of his own and some alarming scientific and photographic evidence that fracking eventually can have catastrophic effects on the area's ability to sustain crops and livestock.
Butler even finds himself competing with Noble for the affections of another local schoolteacher, Alice (an easygoingly charismatic Rosemarie DeWitt), an intelligent and good-natured woman who has roots in the town, and after time in the big city has returned to the property her family nurtured for years. Butler is intending to pitch the drilling rights offer to her as well, but pulls back as circumstances — and his own experience living in a small town that had its fortunes altered by big business — begin to persuade him that he's been selling everyone a bill of goods.
One of the most interesting character relationships in the film is that of Butler and Thomason. She's a single mother just trying to support a young son with whom she's obviously very close, constantly Skyping with him and encouraging his efforts as a Little League Baseball player. She's also like a big sister — albeit a competitive one — to Butler, but she's all about their corporate mission, and at odds with him when his conscience begins to jeopardize their chances at landing those drilling rights for the $9 billion company for which they work, a firm that's just bestowed a big promotion on Butler.
Krasinski — who developed the original story idea — and Damon have written a solid script loaded with fully realized characters to whom any audience can relate. And the story's basic message — about a society that still allows open-minded debate over grave issues — is well worth considering.
— Gene Triplett