Daniel Day-Lewis, his mustache and his oil derricks wreaked havoc in early 20th century California, star/co-writer Matt Damon and “Promised Land” arrive to see if small-town Pennsylvanians will sell their souls for natural gas. Well, that’s not how Steve Butler’s (Damon) sales pitch goes. He and Sue (Frances McDormand) are experts at going into struggling communities and emphasizing the economic boom that will follow his company’s fracking. If you’re giggling, you should probably look up what that means.
Oh, commerce and integrity. Can't you two ever get along?
Folks seem agreeable in McKinley, Penn., until a science teacher (Hal Holbrook) with a Ph.D. in physics from Cornell argues that the situation isn’t as simple as it seems, and that the locals should vote after learning more about supposed financial and health risks. When environmental advocate Dustin Noble (co-writer John Krasinski) arrives with photos of dead cows and a story about how natural gas shut down his father’s farm, Steve looks ready to bust a gasket of his own.
Fifteen years after “Good Will Hunting” and 10 after “Gerry,” Damon re-teams with director Gus Van Sant. Neither has lost his ability to hold attention. Damon is one of Hollywood’s most naturally likable presences, even when losing his cool, and he brings charm to the flirtation between Steve and local gal Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt)—though her character is oversimplified, especially when she also bats an eye at Dustin. I know she’s the prettiest single woman in town, and the love triangle doesn’t turn into “The Departed” or anything, but it’s a distraction from the central issue.
Speaking of which, “Promised Land” generates plenty of conflict and conflicted people as they consider whether they support bringing natural gas to a dilapidated town. But it rarely elevates the debates above the theoretical. Nobody learns details about the real risks involved or takes the situation further than the broad issue of, “Is it worth possible disaster and the loss of my family farm to save our economy?” The collision between values and the bottom line gets stickier with people in need, but “Promised Land” smoothes over current conditions and what could happen whether they sign off on Steve’s company or not.
It’s a movie that feels either too long or too short—a fable that fails to grow into a statement.
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