Available this week on DVD, “Promised Land” stars Matt Damon, who also co-produced the movie and co-wrote the screenplay. His collaborator in both roles, John Kracinski (Jim on TV’s “The Office”), Frances McDormand, and Rosemarie De Witt round out a strong ensemble of “name” actors. Hal Holbrook gets a nice extended cameo to lend a little gravitas to the proceedings. The film focuses on the controversy surrounding fracking, about which process I probably don’t need to say much to regular readers of this paper. Our region has been touched by the economics and environmental concerns surrounding this method of extracting natural gas from beds of shale deep under the earth.
It is just that land that provides the focus of the film. As Steve Butler, a somewhat embittered ex-Iowa farm boy, Damon brings a mixture of earnestness and worldliness to a fairly complex character. Along with his partner, single mother Sue (McDormand), he represents Global Crosspower Company, a $9 billion enterprise that is leasing up farmland on which to drill. Clad in flannels and driving an old Jeep to attempt to fit in with the locals, Steve and Sue have been so successful that he’s in line for a vice-presidency. So this is, in effect, his farewell to the rural life he has all but left behind.
At a local bar, he meets schoolteacher Alice (DeWitt), gets drunk with her — Steve is drinking a lot these days — and thinks to have impressed her as he has her townsfolk, most of whom are drawn to the promise of money for the leases. Enter environmentalist Dustin Noble (!) (Kracinski), working for an outfit so small that Steve — whose company has faced multiple lawsuits — has never heard of it. Dustin’s story of his family farm being destroyed by drillers, his boyish affability, and his uncanny ability to foresee Steve’s moves gets him a date with Alice and, along with it, Steve’s goat.
Also lined up against Steve and Sue is high school science teacher Frank Yates (Holbrook), who is considerably more than meets the eye. Holbrook and Damon share one of the film’s best moments, one that could have been enlarged considerably. Instead, the movie pulls a twist on the plot and the characters that smacks so deeply of artifice that it undercuts the theme and the overall effectiveness. While not getting preachy about the issue, “Promised Land” ultimately fails to deliver on the promise of its star and script.
Director Gus Van Sant utilizes cinematographer Linus Sandgren’s bucolic images and Danny Elfman’s understated musical score deftly. This is a “small film,” the “big” topic notwithstanding, so it may not be the ticket for the average teenager: the movie is rated “R” primarily for language, in any case. It is a thoughtful, if not definitive movie regarding the larger issues of energy independence vs. environmental concerns.