Steve Butler (Matt Damon) may lowball a farmer willing to allow fracking on his property, but he reminds himself -- and newfound acquaintances -- "I'm not a bad guy" in "Promised Land."
He is on the verge of a promotion with a $9 billion energy company, but he also believes in what he is doing. He hails from an Iowa farming community and witnessed what happened when the town's Caterpillar plant closed and the economy withered like corn in a drought, with no safety net in sight.
"I'm not selling them natural gas. I'm selling them the only way they have to get back," Steve insists before heading to the rural town of McKinley to meet his sales partner, Sue (Frances McDormand), and start working the land and the landowners.
They head for a shop called Rob's Guns, Groceries, Guitars and Gas, buy some clothes so they can blend in with the locals and get to work. They are "land men" charged with softening up local politicians and persuading farmers to allow shale gas drilling on their property.
"I thought it would be harder," Sue even boasts. "It's too easy," but the slam dunk she and Steve envisioned quickly evaporates.
An esteemed farmer (Hal Holbrook) raises salient, troubling questions at a town meeting held at the local high school, but the biggest threat comes from an environmentalist, Dustin Noble (John Krasinski), who appears in McKinley and seems to be winning the public relations war. He also has taken up with a school teacher (Rosemarie DeWitt) who flirted with Mr. Damon's character one long drunken night.
"Promised Land" seems to have a couple of omissions -- no lawyers and, to a lesser extent, no journalists -- and shows Mr. Krasinski's character giving a (literally) inflammatory demonstration of fracking to a classroom of elementary school pupils. Even in the most relaxed, rural settings, I doubt a visitor with an agenda would be allowed to start and then extinguish a fire.
Directed by Gus Van Sant and written by Mr. Damon and Mr. Krasinski, "Promised Land" lights a fire under a handful of issues, from fracking, business ethics and winning at all costs to the caretaking of precious resources for generations to come.
By design, rather than accident, water creeps into many scenes, from the water Mr. Damon splashes on his face in restrooms and the arrival of Biblical-style rain to a lemonade stand, presence of ponds on farm property, adults toting bottled water and the Miller Falls Motel.
Frances McDormand, a 1975 Monessen High School graduate, stars as Sue Thomason in "Promised Land."Mr. Holbrook is like the guardian of the forest who famously speaks for the trees in "Dr. Seuss' The Lorax."
With none of the shrill tones, finger-pointing or ugly accusations that often come with a divisive issue, he calmly warns about the peril of "scorching the earth beneath our feet" and adds, "I'm lucky to be old enough to have a shot at dying with my dignity." It's an inspired marriage of actor and role.
Mr. Damon projects earnestness, a fierce sense of competition and a decades-old connection to his roots, while Mr. Krasinski turns in a sly, smart performance. And Ms. McDormand seems absolutely comfortable as Sue, funny, practical, dedicated but healthily detached from her work. The co-writers scripted the role for the 1975 Monessen High School graduate and she wears it like a perfectly tailored suit.
"Promised Land" is about fracking and yet it's not, and while set in a fictional community it's played on screen by scenic locations in Westmoreland, Armstrong and Allegheny counties. Even if they don't recognize the pastoral farmland, many moviegoers may spot the Grand Concourse at Station Square.
The drama is about how people approach their jobs and the high costs they bring -- for single mother Sue, hers is a way to support the teenage son she has to communicate with via Skype -- as well as promised riches and premature spending, pride and responsibility of ownership, how money may not buy happiness but it can bring freedom and better schools, and the compromises city dwellers or rural residents are willing to make.
Will "Promised Land" change your mind about fracking? Probably not. But it likely will entertain and, if you steer clear of online spoilers, surprise you.
Movie editor Barbara Vancheri:
or 412-263-1632. Read her blog:www.post-gazette.com/madaboutmovies.