In Gus Van Sant’s new film, a salesman for a natural gas company (Matt Damon) keeps telling residents of a broke farming community that he’s not a bad guy. He’s not trying to take advantage of them, he says; he simply believes that the money they can make by signing away rights so his company can extract gas from their land could be their saving grace.
The fact that this wholesome-looking salesman, Steve Butler, believes this pitch gives Promised Land an essential credibility: Even though it’s about a crisis of conscience, the movie doesn’t merely set up Steve as a villain (though some people understandably view him that way). Steve grew up in a small Iowa town that crumbled when the nearby plant shut down. He knows the frustration of having no money, no way to make a living, no way out. He believes the rural way of life in America is coming to an end, and he thinks he’s offering help to farmers caught in the crunch. This is not to say Steve is not ambitious — he’s the company’s best salesman and will be rewarded handsomely for his success. But there’s a reason he closes more deals than anyone else: His pitches bear a ring of truth.
Promised Land follows Steve and his partner Sue (Frances McDormand) as they swoop into the latest in a series of small towns lying atop precious resources. But things turn sour quickly for the pair, who work and bicker together with the ease and familiarity of an old married couple. First, a high school science teacher with an impressive pedigree (Hal Holbrook) stands up at a town hall meeting and won’t shut up about the dangers of fracking, the controversial method of extracting natural gas from the land. Then a cheery environmentalist (John Krasinski of The Office) shows up, frightening the locals with posters of dead cows and wooing them with an infuriating, effortless charm. Steve and Sue find some supporters but quickly realize their battle is going to be all uphill.
Written by Damon and Krasinski from a story by literary wizard Dave Eggers, Promised Land may sound preachy, and Van Sant, who directed Damon’s Oscar-winning screenplay for Good Will Hunting, has a definite point of view on the subject of big companies bullying the little guys. But the characters drive this story, not ideology. Damon and McDormand are terrific as co-workers seeking the same goal, though they see their work from different points of view. To Sue, gathering leases is just a job; she shrugs off any long-term ramifications, already distracted enough by her own family’s needs. Steve, on the other hand, takes rejection and loss personally. Their working relationship is one of the best things about Promised Land, which turns out to be more about the people involved in the future of the heartland than whether the gas company wins.
The rural roads, farm houses and fields are shot with a restrained glamor — the idea here was clearly to make rural America look rustic, lovely and vital — and even as the movie ambles along to Steve’s inevitable change of heart, it takes us along for the drive.
Cast: Matt Damon, Frances McDormand, John Krasinski, Hal Holbrook, Rosemarie DeWitt.
Director: Gus Van Sant.
Screenwriters: Matt Damon, John Krasinski, Dave Eggers.
Producer: Chris Moore.
A Focus Features release. Running time: 107 minutes. Language. Playing at area theaters