Natural gas drilling is a hot-button topic in many parts of the country, and so Promised Land should have no trouble attracting audience attention, especially with a top-notch cast and Middle America marketing campaign.
Unfortunately, however, the dramatic potential in such politically divisive subject matter is squandered in a screenplay that oversimplifies and trivializes the issues between gas companies and environmentalists, and the landowners who are often caught in the middle.
The story takes place in a small Pennsylvania farming community hit hard by the failing economy. One saving grace could be the millions in potential profits from drilling into the plentiful natural gas resources in the ground below.
That’s what Steve (Matt Damon) and his partner Sue (Frances McDormand) are planning when they arrive from a corporate gas giant with a door-to-door plan of getting all the locals to agree to have gas wells placed on their property in exchange for a share of the revenue.
Their plan sounds like a slam-dunk until they encounter Dustin (John Krasinski), who represents an environmental group and intends to convince the townsfolk that their riches won’t come without health and ecological dangers. That makes the corporate office nervous and causes Steve some internal strife.
Scenarios similar to this have played out in various rural towns throughout the country, and the film shows its knowledge of that by throwing out words like shale and fracking, even explaining the latter in detail during an early monologue by Hal Holbrook, playing a concerned schoolteacher.
Yet there’s a basic lack of believability here, even though the screenplay by Krasinski and Damon — reuniting with director Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting) — seems to have its heart in the right place while its priorities are muddled.
Steve is presented as a confident corporate man who has met every challenge set in front of him. Yet when he arrives in the town, he acts defensive and paranoid almost immediately, more willing to dish out bribes than put an experienced spin on his company’s greedy motives.
A far-fetched twist in the final act exaggerates his moral conflict as the film turns more sentimental and heavy-handed, inferring that Steve would somehow ingratiate himself enough with the locals to earn their sympathy.
Promised Land leaves little doubt which side it supports in terms of the drilling debate, but the predictable approach of this clumsy redemption story makes its impact less convincing.
Rated R, 106 minutes.