There are shots in Gus Van Sant's Promised Land that could be mistaken for shots in 1991's My Own Private Idaho: beautiful pastoral scenes, rolling country roads, the filmmaker's signature time-lapse clouds. But where Idaho evokes Shakespeare in its language and surrealist painting in its dreamlike images, Promised Land sounds a subtler and more humble note. It's a quiet drama of social and personal heft, about a corporate salesman, Steve (Matt Damon), who travels to small American towns and buys up land to drill for natural gas. But as he goes door to door convincing the blue-collar Pennsylvania townsfolk that natural gas promises an economic windfall, he begins to question his own silver-tongued pitch.
It's a familiar narrative arc—likable corporate villain undergoes crisis of conscience—executed skillfully and sympathetically, though hampered by a few preachy incidents and some dubious plot twists late in the film. And for a picture that's been billed as a social-issue drama, Promised Land isn't really about fracking (as the controversial natural gas drilling technique is known). In fact, when Damon and fellow star John Krasinski were writing the screenplay—based on a story by Dave Eggers—they considered a variety of issues for the film's backdrop. Given Damon's extensive environmental advocacy, they deemed natural gas a timely issue, and the film not so subtly denounces corruption in the energy industry. But Promised Land is primarily a character drama, albeit with undercurrents of environmental politics and elegiac portrayals of rural struggle.
As the central character in that drama, Damon gives a characteristically genuine performance. His character, Steve, is a farm boy turned white-collar salesman who's just been tapped for a massive promotion. He trills a consistent refrain: "I'm not a bad guy." But when high-school science teacher—and former Boeing engineer—Frank Yates (a reliably twinkly Hal Holbrook) whips out some damning data on fracking at a town hall meeting, Steve flails at the microphone. As his associate Sue (Frances McDormand, consistently and likably tart) stares agog, Steve acknowledges that fracking is no miracle cure.
But the real trouble arrives in the form of the improbably named Dustin Noble (Krasinski), from the ridiculously named environmental group Superior Athena. Abetted by a pearly grin, cargo pants and a well-worn baseball cap, Dustin immediately launches a campaign to stop Steve and Sue—but only after belting out Springsteen at the local bar. Krasinski is a slightly smarmy charmer who further peeves Steve by snaring pretty elementary schoolteacher Alice (a good-spirited but dramatically superfluous Rosemarie DeWitt). It's in a presentation in Alice's classroom that Promised Land comes closest to showing how fracking actually works, as Dustin pours chemicals into a soil-filled Ziploc and then pokes holes in the plastic, causing dirty liquid to spout onto the miniature farm scene below. It's a delightful little scene.
Throughout, Van Sant's assured direction allows the drama to build quietly, and he cuts in pastoral panoramas that establish a clear sense of place without glorifying it. But Promised Land can't help but wear its heart on its sleeve, and in the third act succumbs to a cheap shock. In a picture that's otherwise well acted, well-intentioned and handsomely shot, such late-in-the-game manipulations of storytelling leave a sour taste. Van Sant has called Promised Land his opportunity to make a movie in the spirit of Frank Capra, but the machinations of Damon and Krasinski's screenplay have done him a disservice.
Critic's Grade: B
SEE IT: Promised Land is rated R. It opens Friday at Fox Tower, 846 SW Park Ave, 221-3280.