★★★ (out of 5 stars)
Opens Friday, Jan. 4
In the opening minutes of Promised Land, Steve Butler (Matt Damon) – a local representative for a massive energy company – awaits a meeting with a company boss as Butler is considered for a regional vice-president position. Another employee sits with him in a restaurant, and Butler explains why he's committed to his work, traveling through rural America getting leasing rights for the natural-gas extraction commonly known as fracking. Butler is a farm-raised boy, he says, who saw his small hometown shrivel up and blow away after the one significant local employer shut down. The "delusional self-mythology" of salt-of-the-earth folk is the problem, he argues; the money Butler's company is offering them can improve their lives.
It's thrilling to watch a movie you expect to go in one very specific direction instead offer the prospect of something fascinatingly different. The script – co-written by Damon, John Krasinski and Dave Eggers – gives us a protagonist who's not self-evidently in need of redemption, nor does he appear to be a stooge with blinders on. Rather, Steve Butler is a corporate guy who's selling people not a cynical lie, but something that doesn't have to be perfect, because it's a hell of a lot more than what they've got now.
Perhaps it would have been wise to pay more attention to the opening shot by Good Will Hunting director Gus Van Sant, in which Butler washes his face in the clear water of the restaurant bathroom sink – clear water that, nudge-nudge, might not be available to the townsfolk if fracking spoils the groundwater. Before long, Butler is running up against opposition to the gas-leasing plan, first from Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook), a retired engineer now serving as a local science teacher, then from Dustin (Krasinski), an environmental activist who hits town to get people fired up. Will our hero realize before it's too late that he's on the wrong side? The maddening part is that Promised Land seems to be doing so many things right for so long. Frances McDormand gets a terrific part as Butler's co-worker, Sue, who brings a far more nuts-and-bolts approach to her job than the more personally motivated Butler; some of the best material involves her semi-flirtatious interactions with a local merchant (Titus Welliver). The obligatory "romantic interest" sub-plot – involving Butler's dealings with a tart-tongued schoolteacher (Rosemarie DeWitt) – gets a satisfying twist in that it's not exactly a "romantic interest" sub-plot. There are plenty of off-hand moments that make this setting feel authentic, and a surprisingly cynical turn when it becomes apparent that the environmentalists could be just as calculating as their Big Bad Corporation counterpoints.
But Promised Land isn't confident enough to stick with the notion that the most interesting villain might take a condescending "we know what's best for you" attitude toward those who are struggling to perpetuate a fading American lifestyle. So Butler has to have his moment with the earnest Yates, which feels like a setup for a variation on Ralph Bellamy's "I don't know how to say this without sounding condescending, but I'm proud of you" moment from Pretty Woman. And as the plot builds toward the revelations that will force Butler to make a moral decision, it grinds with predictable determination toward that dramatic moment when the camera will slowly dolly in on Butler's face, the wheels of conscience turning behind his eyes.
That moment is made even more frustrating because it involves a big speech in the town gymnasium; gymnasium speeches tend to be one of those cinematic crowd-pleaser devices from which no real dramatic good can come. Promised Land has all the promise in the world when it's using the framework of an "issue" drama to explore something much more human. Its own "delusional self-mythology" is that it becomes more important by virtue of becoming more obvious.