Promised Land is the latest in a modern stream of films to weigh the costs of ecology versus economy. It stars Matt Damon as Steve Butler, a small-town boy made good who has left his Eldridge, Ia., upbringing to become a hotshot corporate salesman working for a natural gas company in the Big Apple. The film – co-written by Damon with hungry star-on-the-rise John Krasinski and esteemed nonfiction writer Dave Eggers – aspires to be a virtuous one about the honor of living on the land. But don’t be mistaken. Beneath the t-shirts, jeans and flannel, Land is a vanity project.
Butler and colleague Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand) converge in McKinley, Pa., the same sort of rural environment where gassy aliens converged in M. Night Shyalamalan’s Signs. These guys, and their even slicker boss, David Churchill (Terry Kinney), arrive with a seemingly more insidious purpose: to buy from the townspeople the right to use their land to pump toxic chemicals deep into the ground in order to loosen up natural gas – fracking, as it has come to be called. They come armed with company accounts and plenty of derision for the locals; clearly they have come through and stomped on the little people in plenty of similar environments.
It’s business as usual for Steve and Sue at first, as dangling multiple zeroes is enough to convert the townspeople. But then retired science teacher Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook) challenges Steve in a town hall, and a farm boy-turned-green advocate named, ahem, Dustin Noble (Krasinski), begins delivering anti-fracking propaganda. The deck seems stacked so firmly against Steve, Sue, and big Energy that the outcome seems inevitable.
And it is, thanks to a script that spreads the blame around just enough that everyone emerges a loser but an inculpable one. Because Land traffics in cookie-cutter types that are either Good or Bad, with appropriate comeuppances their way, it can offer no commentary on the complex issues at hand. Fracking may be dangerous and building on the Land might be sad, but so is the plight of many rural Middle Americans, who, like it or not, need money to survive. Their increasingly poor economy is tied to the national one, which is an issue the movie sidesteps. And that’s a shame, because there’s plenty of inherent conflict there – more so than in Damon’s, Eggers’ and Krasinski’s conventional script. Krasinski is an interesting actor and throws himself a few softball scenes that Dustin doesn’t earn; they seem designed to build image more than support character. Meanwhile, Damon isn’t playing a person but a figurehead. Steve gets absolved at every turn, his motivations going rewarded, his sleight-of-hand always forgiven by the town, here embodied by pretty schoolteacher, Alice (Rosemarie Dewitt).
Director Gus Van Sant himself seems genuinely disinterested in the issues at play in Land, and his by-the-numbers approach does nothing to draw the audience in to its shallow story of false redemption. McDormand, Holbrook and Dewitt can be counted for typically centered work, but even these MVPs are playing in service to the wrong kind of story. Land never asks the question of why these locals continue to stay, and where they can eventually go, instead giving way to the celebration of a prodigal son who has found his way – at least for a little while. “Swing away,” one character from Signs mentions. But few involved with Land seem interested in hitting a home run when a walk will do just fine.