SYNOPSIS: A successful salesman for a natural gas company unexpectedly meets resistance from some of the local residents in a small town, where his corporation wants to tap into the available resources.
REVIEW: Good Will Hunting director Gus Van Zant reteams with Matt Damon on another project Damon writes, this time with co-writers John Krasinski and Dave Eggers (Where the Wild Things Are). Van Zant and Damon have worked together on Good Will Hunting. Krasinski and Eggers have worked together on Away We Go. It seems only natural that they would come together for the tale of a salesman who finds another path after experiencing the happenings in a small town.
Steve Butler (Matt Damon, We Bought a Zoo) and Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand, Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted) head to a small town to start the sign-up process to lease property from the local residents in the farming community. At first they are met with open arms by the property owners, all seemingly willing and ready to sign the lease papers to allow Global to start the drilling process for natural gas. Suddenly, at a town meeting, high school science teacher Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook, Lincoln) lays out the evidence that drilling for the shale miles below the surface, called fracking, may prove more hazardous to the environment and their properties than what Butler and Thomason are letting on - in spite of the promise of wealth and security of their financial futures. The town elders decide to put the issue to a vote, deciding whether Global will be able to lease any property in the area. Steve and Sue's plans are further made difficult by the arrival of an environmentalist Dustin Noble (John Krasinski, The Office) who thwarts the Global representatives' progress at every turn. With his job and success at stake, Steve must think outside his normal measures in an effort to get the job done for Global.
Matt Damon, always with good acting and project choices, takes on a character that is not necessarily one that you can root for or get behind. At the onset, Damon's Steve relays to his boss the secret to his business units success. He came from Iowa where he watched the local Caterpillar plant shut down, leading to the freefall of the local industry and economy, and leading to his hometown becoming a shell of its former agricultural self. Now, as an advance man for Global, he takes his offers of financial security for the downtrodden people he visits to heart.
As Krasinski's Dustin arrives to alert the town of the past ecological disasters Global has allegedly been responsible for, its difficult to believe that Steve and Sue are completely unaware of what their parent company may have been up to. Steve's altruistic motives are quickly overshadowed by the 'what ifs' and his well-practiced pitch to each farmer he meets. McDormand's Sue seems more unflappable, treating her position as just a job that will let her get back to her son. Are they the good guys or the bad guys? At times, it's hard to determine.
Like in Erin Brockovich, the film has plenty of characters (although maybe not as many). In Promised Land, the main players after Damon, McDormand, and Krasinski are the science teacher Frank Yates, town elder Gerry Richards (Ken Strunk, Secretariat), and a couple of people who may or may not be construed as love interests. Teacher Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt, The Watch) meets with Steve at the local bar, taking a shine to the outsider. Sue is confronted with the steely eyed prospects of Rob (Titus Welliver, Argo) of Rob's Guns, Groceries, Guitars, and Gas. Its difficult to say where either of their interests lie. Maybe everyone is just looking out for their own best interests.
Sue mentions, as her and Steve drive toward the small town, that she can't believe that two hours outside of the city looks like the back hills of Kentucky. Steve assures her that driving two hours out from any city looks like Kentucky. The countryside depicted in the film - rolling green hills and dales, quilted parcels of land divided by fence lines and generations.
The sprawl of rural America is just outside the public eye most times, most of us living in suburban and urban ignorance. Most have probably only seen farmland on television or in the movies. There is a big wide wonderful country out there mostly unseen up close.
The real-life issue of the country's need and vast consumption of fuel is center stage in this film, accented by pundits on both sides of the issue. And, of course, there are varying degrees of responsibility to be had across the board.
Is it the responsibility of Steve and Sue to question the directives from their $7 billion benefactor? Are the ecological risks from fracking too great to sign on the dotted lease line? Will the disasters of yesterday come to pass in the future? A frank discussion of all the issues, with every card face up on the table, seems to be the most logical way to go. But rational fear, the allure of money, and other factors of human nature do not always balance or cancel each other out.
Promised Land is a fine understated film that peels back the glamour and the allure of money from energy corporations, focusing on the cause and effects of action or inaction at a personal, more basic level.
★ ★ ★ 1/2 out of 5 | Rental
Rated: R Language.
Release Date: December 28, 2012 (limited), January 4, 2013 (expands)
Runtime: 1 hour 46 minutes
Director: Gus Van Sant
Writers: John Krasinski, Matt Damon, Dave Eggers
Cast: Matt Damon, Hal Holbrook, Dorothy Silver, Frances McDormand, Titus Welliver, John Krasinski