The peripatetic Gus Van Sant has limned the lives of drug addicts, hustlers and wayward teens, remade “Psycho” shot-for-shot and directed a straightforward, Oscar-caliber biopic (“Milk”), but he has never tackled one of those topical message movies Stanley Kramer (“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”) used to make.
Call this one “Guess Who’s Coming to Drill for Gas in Your Yard.” Its characters are not so much people as talking points debating one of the hottest environmental controversies of the moment. Lacking confidence that these didactic speeches will drive its message home, the film throws in a paranoid plot twist from which it never recovers.
Matt Damon plays Steve, an up-and-coming salesman for Global Crosspower Solutions, an energy company specializing in hydraulic fracturing, or “hydrofracking,” in which water and chemicals are injected into shale to release the natural gas within.
His turf is the rural community of McKinley (the movie was shot in western Pennsylvania), where family farms are facing foreclosure. Leasing their land may be their only lifeline.
He and his more cynical sales partner Sue (Frances McDormand) consider this trip an easy score, but they haven’t counted on pushback from a high school science teacher (Hal Holbrook); Steve’s attraction to Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt), a sunny schoolteacher living on a farm that goes back generations; and a journeyman environmental activist with the unlikely name of Dustin Noble (John Krasinski).
Dustin works the town over like a seasoned professional, staking his position as the new alpha male by belting out Springsteen at the local bar and making a play for Alice.
In contrast, Steve, is the decent sort who insists that farmers desperate to sign his lease sleep on it first. He starts to have his doubts that he’s doing the right thing. Unlike Sue, a single mother who needs the paycheck, he can just walk away.
Krasinski and Damon wrote the screenplay from a story that Krasinski had asked writer Dave Eggers (“A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius”) to develop.
Their film could have coasted on Damon’s easy charm and his prickly chemistry with McDormand, or its “Local Hero” enchantment of city mice by country bumpkins — even Sue finds a romantic interest in the guitar-and-gun-selling proprietor of the general store (Titus Welliver).
It could have simply weighed the risk of environmental devastation vs. the immediate financial needs of farmers put out of business by Big Agriculture. It could have rested its case on the evidence of ground water contamination and called it a day.
But “Promised Land” is not content to leave it there, taking a third-act turn that is both unnecessary and nonsensical.
If the Van Sant-Damon-Krasinski team is not the lightning in a bottle that Van Sant-Damon-Affleck was in “Good Will Hunting,” there’s still an amiable friction between Damon and Krasinski, the latter playing against type, and an earnestness that feels downright welcome in our bad-faith era.
But it’s their own lack of faith in the audience that gets them into trouble. Krasinski and Damon’s original script was about wind power. Oil drilling, coal mining and salmon fishing were considered before coming around to this current cause célèbre, which has attracted celebrities from Mark Ruffalo to Yoko Ono whose country homes are imperiled by impoverished neighbors eager to lease their land to gas companies.
That tension would have been enough for a movie. Conspiracy theories we don’t need.