Matt Damon is one of the good guys. Whether you’re talking about his political activism or his film roles, the 42-year-old Oscar-winner projects an empathetic decency that’s self-effacing and charming. (In comparison to his “Ocean’s Eleven” cohorts George Clooney and Brad Pitt, he legitimately gives off the air of a regular guy.) That’s why it’s so enjoyable to see him play Steve Butler, a snake-oil salesman peddling the wonders of natural-gas drilling (commonly known as “fracking”) to a floundering small-town community in desperate need of an economic infusion. Sadly, “Promised Land” trumpets an important cause without being a particularly good movie. You salute the message but not the messenger.
In “Promised Land,” directed by Gus van Sant, Steve and his partner Sue (Frances McDormand) head to a rural Midwestern community to convince the townsfolk to sell their drilling rights to the powerful energy company that employs him. Steve promises great riches, but Dustin (John Krasinski), an equally charismatic chap who’s an environmental activist, comes to town warning about the dangers of fracking, hoping to drive Steve out.
An opponent of fracking, which has been revealed to cause significant environmental and health risks, Damon co-wrote the earnest screenplay with Krasinski, and he slyly uses his onscreen likability to play a conflicted man who tries to bury his own ethical concerns beneath a smiling face and a pleasant, aw-shucks manner. At its best, “Promised Land” examines how those who pollute and corrupt our world—either through greed or callousness—don’t think that they’re the bad guys, and Damon does a nice job conveying Steve’s genuine belief in the righteousness of his cause.
The problem is that “Promised Land” eventually becomes a formulaic character drama in which Steve must learn the error of his ways. That alone wouldn’t be so bad—Damon certainly has the skill to convey Steve’s growing disillusionment—but what’s particularly irksome is a late plot twist that makes the character’s change of heart too easy, robbing the moment of the dramatic power it deserves.
With that said, the movie does have its incidental strengths, chief among these being a sharp cast that plays these small-town characters with real feeling, including Rosemarie DeWitt as a possible romantic interest who, in some ways, serves as Steve’s Jiminy Cricket and challenges his motives for spreading the gospel of fracking. “Promised Land” may raise awareness about an urgent environmental issue, but as drama, the movie drills and drills, never quite hitting pay dirt.
Critic’s Score: C+
Directed by Gus Van Sant
Casting by Francine Maisler
Starring Matt Damon, John Krasinski, Frances McDormand, Rosemarie DeWitt