Now playing at International Village
In the care of director Gus Van Sant, the politics of Promised Land feel as comfortable as the hand-me-down boots worn by its old-fashioned hero, Matt Damon.
But make no mistake: finger-wagging about corporate greed (by fracking, specifically) runs parallel to this story of one man's spiritual transformation, in Van Sant's elegy to small-town America.
Damon stars, in a script he co-wrote with John Krasinski, as Steve Butler, rising star with Global, who are in the business of appropriating small-towns for the purpose of fracking, whereby natural gas is mined from deep underground.
The latest target for Steve and his sidekick Sue (Frances McDormand) is an idyllic town in Pennsylvania. True, it's a world in which few of us grew up, and soon won't even remember. Big box stores and exported jobs have drained such small-towns dry, and the people who haven't fled for jobs in bigger cities are trapped in a "delusional self-mythology, farming-town fantasy," according to Steve.
He and Sue have a specific spin for each household they enter, and it's heart-breaking to watch: the reps promise better jobs, better health and a safer environment for kids, depending on whether or not they spy a trike in the yard. "You could be a millionaire," Steve says, hating himself more with each knocked door.
Steve's first opposition comes from a retired science teacher (Hal Holbrook, the moral centre of the story or bleeding-heart, depending on your politics). He has done a little research about the side effects - sick residents and livestock, poisoned water - resulting from fracking. But money talks, especially to farmers facing foreclosure and trying to feed their families.
Steve's second foe is an outsider from the city, Dustin (Krasinski), whom the residents view even more warily than they do the Global reps. At first Steve is na‹ve about his Dustin's influence ("SOB_ he made signs!") but it isn't long before people start closing their doors. "The only reason you're here is because we're poor," observes a local (Scoot McNairy), who's not nearly as dumb as he looks.
"I'm not a bad guy," Steven keeps repeating, unconvincingly. You see, Steve is an Iowa farmboy by birth, a down-home guy at heart; he still wears his daddy's old boots. And it seems that a date or two with a pretty schoolteacher (Rosemarie DeWitt) might just be all it takes to turn him around. Damon is definitely more convincing playing conflicted than cutthroat, but charms in the role.
Van Sant offers bucolic scenery, often from a bird's eye view, highlighting exactly what's at stake here. Small moments, such as Sue's stilted video-chats with her teenage son back home, make things feel legitimate. So what if there are a few too many flags flying, or a little too much sermonizing in the school gym. By the time Steve grows a conscience, the movie's medicine has already gone down, and we didn't feel a thing.