In many ways, Promised Land travels the same moral pathways that made Up in the Air so compelling. Just as that Oscar-nominated film delved into the complicated issues that arise when human values get mixed in with business, Promised Land casts a relatively even light over the unwinnable choice many farmers face when they have to decide between two evils.
Residents of a small community -- the kind of Anywhere, U.S.A., where there are stores that proudly boast they sell "Guns, Groceries, Guitars, Gas" -- must decide whether to lease their land to a gas company for fracking -- deep drilling -- because they need the money or reject the offer because of all the environmental issues.
Matt Damon plays salesman Steve Butler, the handsome-faced representative who shows up with his partner (Frances McDormand) to lock up leases that could be worth millions to both the farmers and the gas company. What appears to be an easy task, considering the number of foreclosures dotting the rolling landscape, hits a snag when a wide-eyed conservationist (John Krasinski) -- with the little-too-obvious name of Dustin Noble -- shows up with evidence of the disasters of past drillings.
The screenplay by Krasinski and Damon leans heavily on the side of saving the planet. But there are arguments made for why such a tricky venture makes sense. The loudest arguments against the deal come from local science teacher Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook). But even he, in the end, admits that he has the luxury of being old enough that he would not have to deal with any of the negative consequences.
There's a secondary story line about the love triangle of Butler, Noble and Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt,) a local teacher who could charm the husk off corn. This geometrically challenged relationship never develops enough to make it as interesting as the main plot, but it also isn't dealt with enough to be a distraction.
What makes the movie is Damon, who has a complicated mixture of all-American looks with a corporate heart. It's the way he so effortlessly slips from a man of conviction to a man of the people that makes the role and -- by extension -- the film work. He provides the kind of firm touch to make the movie's message come across with absolute clarity without making the viewer feel like they have been slapped or punched by the point.
A lot of that comes from the direction by Gus Van Sant, who manages to make big business bad without looking maniacal and small-town America look quaint without feeling like a haven for the backward and ill-informed. Van Sant also shows an appreciation for the land by often allowing the camera to quietly drift over the landscape like a lone cloud on a summer day.
Promised Land is the latest film to deal with a dilemma that continues to grow as the economy shrinks. Sadly, as so clearly shown in this movie, the question of doing the right thing is no longer a black-and-white issue. It's now tainted with deep greens.
-- The Fresno Bee
Excerpts of select reviews of Promised Land:
Damon and Krasinski co-wrote the script, and they do a nice job of giving the usual confrontations a gentle and surprising spin.
-- Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly
Promised Land offers an experience that's alternately amusing and frustrating, full of impassioned earnestness as well as saggy sections.
-- Christy Lemire, The Associated Press
The Music Man of movies about fracking.
-- James Verniere, Boston Herald
It's as if the people behind Promised Land only agreed to make the movie if there was an unambiguous "policy statement" at the end, and that's what we're subjected to.
-- James Berardinelli, ReelViews
Promised Land is a fine place to start appreciating Matt Damon, who always makes it seem as if everybody else is acting and he's just going through the movie being natural.
-- Mick Lasalle, San Francisco Chronicle
Starring Matt Damon, John Krasinski and Frances McDormand
3.5 stars (out of 5)