Socially conscious dramas have long been a staple of Hollywood. Promised Land, written by stars Matt Damon and John Krasinski, is certainly attempting to evoke the classic works of Frank Capra along with Bill Forsyth's Local Hero. The movie touches upon several hot button topics, but primarily focuses on hydraulic fracturing or "fracking," the controversial process of mining natural gas from underground rock layers.
Steve Butler (Damon) is a top sales rep for Global Crosspower Solutions and in line for a promotion to VP of Land Management. Before settling into a cushy office gig, Steve's superiors task him with securing the drilling rights in McKinley, a small farming community hit with hard times. Butler feels he is the right man for the job because he grew up on a farm in Iowa, which went into a downward spiral following the closure of the local Caterpillar plant. Butler and his partner Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand) have their entire strategy mapped out, including driving into town in a weathered pick-up truck and dressing in down-to-earth denim. Many of the locals have been anxiously awaiting their arrival others are easily swayed with the promise of lucrative payouts and improved schools.
Everything seems to be in the bag for Global Crosspower until a low-key town meeting at the high school gym. Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook), a former engineer turned high school science teacher, raises his concerns that the fracking could contaminate the town's water and soil. Soon, Dustin Noble (Krasinski), a fervent environmentalist, arrives with evidence that Global caused irreparable damage to his farm in Nebraska.
Though they try their best to be even-handed, it's clear Damon and Krasinski are strongly opposed to fracking. Damon's beliefs were strong enough that he initially planned to direct Promised Land, before handing the reins to his Good Will Hunting director Gus Van Sant. Van Sant handles the film with a gentle hand and captures the beauty of the rural landscape with a solemn tone. The acoustic folk rock and ethereal score by Danny Elfman add to the old fashioned atmosphere. A montage of life in McKinley acts as a forlorn tribute to the heartland of America, which has been hit hard by the economic crisis. One character bluntly raises the fact that there are no drills in Manhattan and the gas company has arrived solely because they are poor and desperate.
Damon and Krasinski forget a few basic rules of screenwriting. Rather than tell a good story and allow their message to flow forth naturally, they hammer home their ideology on the shaky back of an inconsistent script. Steve Butler is meant to be a confident hotshot, yet he's completely thrown off his game by the sudden opposition of Yates and Noble. You'd think he had enough experience to deal with any arguments in an intelligent manner without throwing a tantrum. A vital twist in the third act is too convenient and hackneyed not to induce eye rolling.
Credit goes to the stellar cast for preventing the film from falling further into ham-handed moralizing. Damon and McDormand turn in fine performances in spite of their underwritten characters. Old pro Hal Holbrook lends an extra layer of gravitas to every one of his scenes. Rosemarie DeWitt is also terrific as an elementary school teacher being romanced by Butler and Noble. She's made a habit of these strong supporting roles in good (My Sister's Sister) or bad (The Watch, The Company Men) flicks. Titus Welliver has a quiet turn as the owner of the wonderfully named "Rob's Guns, Groceries, Guitars, and Gas," who has amorous intentions towards Sue.
The art of cinema can be educating and entertaining, but Promised Land fails on both accounts. Mary Poppins always said a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. In this case, you'll leave with nothing more than a sour taste in your mouth.
Rating: ** (*****)