Promised Land is a genuinely thoughtful film

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Starring Matt Damon, Frances McDormand, and John Krasinski. Rating not available.

In the hands of director Gus Van Sant, Promised Land feels like a welcome update of a Frank Capra movie. It’s the story of baby-faced charmer Steve Butler (Matt Damon), a country boy turned corporate huckster. Butler specializes in convincing cash-strapped farmers to sell drilling rights to the natural gas on their property. Travelling from town to town, he’s a master at selling his vulnerable targets on the enticing possibility that they’re going to be rich.

Naturally, there’s a catch. Butler works for a $9-billion corporation called Global, which practises hydraulic fracturing (commonly known as “fracking”), a controversial drilling process wherein underground rocks are blasted with chemically treated water to release natural gas. The downside? If things go wrong, there’s a definite possibility of environmental disaster. It’s Butler’s job to make sure that possibility doesn’t become an issue.

He runs into problems in Pennsylvania, thanks to the savvy research of a small-town science teacher (Hal Holbrook at his wily best). The teacher suggests that the whole issue of drilling be put to a town vote. Suddenly, Steve and his sardonic associate (Frances McDormand) have a real fight on their hands. Things are further complicated by the arrival of a charismatic environmentalist named Dustin Noble (John Krasinski) who happily takes a bribe from Steve and then uses the money to plaster the town with posters of dead cows that read “Global Go Home”.

The admirable screenplay—cowritten by Damon and Krasinski—emphasizes subtlety and complexity over cheap theatrics or easy answers. The only thing that doesn’t work is a romantic subplot in which Steve and Dustin compete for the affections of an attractive schoolteacher (an underutilized Rosemarie DeWitt). But this is a forgivable misstep.

Promised Land is a genuinely thoughtful movie that deserves a much bigger audience than it will likely get.

Watch the trailer for Promised Land.

 

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