When it comes to the environment, folks are easily swayed by the voice of Hollywood and its familiar faces to tell them what to think. Though some movies might make a cogent argument for or against certain green concerns, Promised Land offers nothing groundbreaking. Ironic, considering it’s a feature about geological excavation…

As part of the Global Crosspower Solutions corporate team, salesman Steve Butler (Matt Damon) prides himself on being able to give communities hit by economic recession a second chance. By meeting with rural landowners and buying drilling rights to their property for natural gas exploration, not only does he benefit his company, but he brings a little revenue to areas that need it badly. When he and his partner Sue (Frances McDormand) are dispatched to the tiny town of McKinley, Steve expects it to be no different from any other project, with many residents quick to sign anything he gives them. What he didn’t reckon with is a small minority of the public who don’t want any part of Global’s plan, and led by a local science teacher (Hal Holbrook), the sentiment against him is rising. Steve and Sue have always had to contend with a little hesitance from people about getting involved with their business, but when an out-of-town environmental crusader (John Krasinski) swoops into town preaching about the hazards of the natural gas process, they may have more than they can handle. What’s more, Steve’s attraction to a local woman (Rosemarie DeWitt) has him examining his conscience about what his job entails.

A multifaceted actor like Damon is well-equipped to play a character that’s somewhat two-faced by nature. While Steve usually presents himself as the farm boy who made good in the business world — while still retaining his upbringing by dressing in flannel and jeans and always wearing boots he inherited from his grandfather — he doesn’t hesitate to cut through the sales BS and say what’s really on his mind — that the agriculture way of life is all but dead and landowners might as well relent to companies like his. McDormand’s role is a little less complex but just as crucial as a single mom who sees her job purely as a way to provide for her kid, regardless of any ethical unease about the kind of work she does. Speaking of which, you’ll notice Steve and Sue both go out of their way to avoid using the dreaded F-word — fracking — until concerned McKinley citizen Frank Yates starts asking questions. Holbrook is masterful as always as a well-educated farmer and teacher bringing up the issue to his fellow townspeople, most of whom are already sold on the idea of selling their land anyway. However, he stops short of actively denouncing Steve and the rest of the Global family, as opposed to Krasinski as green activist Dustin Noble, who’s quick to spread rumors about all the after-effects of hydraulic fracturing, though most of his claims sound pretty specious to Steve.

Let’s face it — whenever there’s a lot of money to be made by an industry, Tinseltown will be there on its high horse, and it’s a little shocking we haven’t seen more of these kinds of movies lately. In developing the screenplay based on Dave Eggers’ story, Damon and Krasinski don’t do themselves any favors by creating a tale that might as well be titled “The Big Bad Corporation and the Little People It Tried to Push Down.” Nobody on either side of an issue like fracking really wants to see a film that’s fair and balanced, but how many times have we seen the combination of heartless executives with sneaky tactics and the small-towners who want no part of their business doings? Unless you’re paying really close attention to license plates and happen to know filming took place in rural Pennsylvania, McKinley is made to look like Anytown, USA, populated by three types of people in the eyes of Global: the well-informed faction like Frank; the stubborn, “won’t leave for any price” type (Scoot McNairy); and the intended target, the hick with the dollar signs in his eyes, as seen in a doofus landowner (Lucas Black) who thinks selling off his scant homestead will make him the next Jed Clampett. These portrayals are simplistic, but the direction by Gus Van Sant pays more attention to Steve and his own moral crisis in working for a company that’s willfully raping and pillaging the American heartland for chump change. After giving us a man who affected enormous social change like Harvey Milk, Van Sant shows us a different sort of man altogether, one who’s been a cog in a system he believes in for a long while and is now seeing it in a different light. There’s a movie you don’t see very often… unless you’ve got Thank You for Smoking, Jerry Maguire and The Insider on your Netflix queue.

As a topical piece, Promised Land differs little from any other film of the year about a controversial subject matter and offers few surprises, though it also doesn’t hammer its point home as much as other flicks of the preachy persuasion. As a character study, it fares a tad better thanks to solid performances and a central personality who’s grounded, realistically conflicted and pretty likable, if not the most interesting guy in the world. For what it’s worth, it might have been worth it to see how Damon would have handled things as a director, as he originally intended. Perhaps we might have seen a face-off between him and best buddy Ben Affleck come awards time?

Rating: 2.5 out of 4 stars

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