By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Promised Land is a timely, quietly powerful cautionary tale about a failing farming community faced with an offer from a big company that could bail them out of financial misery.
But at what cost?
Matt Damon stars as Steve Butler, a sales executive with a natural-gas corporation, Global Crosspower Solutions, who grew up on an Iowa farm that ultimately collapsed.
So he can believe in his job, which is — accompanied by his snappy, pragmatic sales partner, played by Frances MacDormand — to convince the desperate citizens of the struggling small town of McKinley, Pa., that it is in their best interest during these tough economic times to allow his company the right to drill under their land.
It is to be a hydraulic fracturing of the soil with pressurized chemicals in an effort to release natural gas that has come to be called “fracking.”
And why shouldn’t he be able to? After all, he’s done it before in town after town, convincing folks that there is considerable money to be made by granting fracking rights and that it is probably the only way that they will be able to stave off financial ruin.
But this time he’ll have more opposition than usual to his attempt to buy up the drilling rights. First, he’ll have to contend with the vocal opposition of a knowledgable and influential retired science teacher played by Hal Holbrook.
Secondly and even more problematically, there are the slick maneuverings of Dustin Noble, an aggressive environmental activist played by John Krasinski, who shows up in McKinley armed with photographic proof that fracking is a lot more environmentally dangerous than the corporation is letting on, that contaminated drinking water and/or air pollution could result, and that it could be a matter of life and death for livestock. Or people.
The script, written by producers Damon and Krasinski based on a story by Dave Eggers, works the necessary scientific exposition in smoothly, without interrupting too much in the way of narrative momentum or character development. It’s smart without acting smart.
Leading man Damon is characteristically watchable and sympathetic even when behaving duplicitously — a duality that comes to the fore whenever he tells a woman he’s trying to impress, an elementary school teacher played by Rosemarie Dewitt, “I’m not a bad guy,” hoping to convince himself as well.
In the fine line his character walks struggling to find his moral compass, Damon’s naturalness and command make even the most manipulative scenes he’s involved in play organically.
Director Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting, Milk, Elephant, Finding Forrester), employing a surehanded and efficient sense of place as he captures the rhythm of small-town life, lets the narrative unveil at a leisurely pace, confident that his ensemble cast will bring the array of characters to convincing life.
And at least one late plot twist registers with considerable and provocative impact.
So we’ll drill 3 stars out of 4. The low-keyed social-issue drama Promised Land lives up to its promise by intelligently exploring the controversial use of the F word: fracking.