The environmental battle over natural gas drilling may not seem like the material that crowd-pleasing movies are built on, but Promised Land overcomes its potentially bland fracking setup to be a genuinely entertaining movie. In fact, this movie isn't really about fracking as much as it is the moral dilemma faced by its main character, portrayed by Matt Damon. He and John Krasinski square off in the Gus Van Sant-directed film as combating forces on either side of the fracking debate. They handily influence a small town (and the audience), though both campaigns are as compelling as they are dubious.
Damon plays Steve Butler, a slick but likable salesman, with familiar ease. He represents Global, a megacorporate natural-gas company that buys the drilling rights to citizens' land. Steve's got one last town (the fictional McKinley) to win over with his partner Sue (Frances McDormand, a pleasure to watch, as always) before he's promoted up the corporate ranks. They think they've got it in the bag until Dustin (Krasinski), an environmentalist with some bold claims about the detrimental effects of fracking and a whole lot of photos of dead cows, comes into town. Watching the tug of war that ensues to win the favor of the small population gets a little tedious, but the competitive dynamic between Steve and Dustin is one of the strengths of the film. Find out what else I thought of Promised Land when you read more.
While the environmental issue provides the basis of the film, it's much easier to get absorbed in the way Steve and Dustin each rally the town. Steve is amiable, but it's never clear exactly how much he knows about the effects of fracking, so it's hard to judge him for selling people a deal that may include poisoned land and dead livestock. On the other hand, the audience should be rooting for the forthright Dustin, but there's something about him that's also a touch shady. Rosemarie DeWitt plays a supporting role as Alice, a local teacher who sparks a romantic rivalry for Steve and Dustin. Though her presence in the movie feels a little convenient, it's not in vain, as her affections serve as a primary motivator for Steve.
The movie definitely takes a stance on its subject matter, but you don't have to agree with Promised Land's politics to enjoy it. You do learn about fracking, but at its core, this is a film about internal struggles. I was expecting to see graphs and scale models of how fracking affects land — and, actually, I did see those — but between the natural gas drilling lessons, there are fascinating characters.