In addition to co-starring in this film, Matt Damon and John Krasinski also produced and wrote the screenplay (from a story idea Krasinski developed with Dave Eggers). Set in rural Pennsylvania, Promised Land tells the story of a moral conflict in which there are no true villains or heroes. While this gray area may be a true reflection of the way the world works, there’s an obvious difficulty translating moral ambiguity into affecting drama.
Damon plays a man named Steve Butler, who has been hired by a big energy company to buy up the rural land from the area farmers and landowners so that the new owners can drill for natural gas using the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing – or fracking, as it is commonly called. Steve is a good salesman and truly believes that he is offering these Pennsylvania residents a good and fair deal. He hails from a small town himself and has firsthand knowledge of how easy it is for progress and opportunity to pass locals by while they cling uselessly to outmoded sentiments about the perpetuation of their traditional way of life. Steve recognizes that these people’s way of life and sources of income are shriveling and accepts the idea that the cash he is offering them will help them move on. Steve just about has things sewn up when an old codger (Holbrook) poses some arguments against fracking and suggests the town put it to a vote. If that weren’t irksome enough, an environmentalist named Dustin Noble (Krasinski) shows up and proceeds to work the community – and Steve – into a froth. Dustin also vies for the affections of Alice (DeWitt), the local woman who has caught Steve’s eye.
Until a big, third-act revelation, not much else happens in Promised Land. The actors all do nice work, and Van Sant and cinematographer Linus Sandgren effectively convey a sense of an expansive American countryside that has diminishing horizons. The score by Danny Elfman helps underscore this portrait of Americana. However, there’s a predictability to all the characters. Even without clear heroes and villains, the characters all hew to familiar types. Promised Land doesn’t offer great drama, nor does it offer the great debate on fracking that some viewers might have been hoping for. Yet, the film has lots of small moments that make it a worthy effort.
Gus Van Sant hits a rare discordant note with this story about two death-obsessed teens that is twee and precious instead of genuine and candid.