Dir: Gus Van Sant. US. 2012. 106mins

Promised Land

A timely, thoughtful character drama that eventually turns dispiritingly more predictable and simplistic, Promised Land grapples with important questions about corporate greed, the power of communities and moral responsibility, but its genuine concern for these topics only makes the film’s uninspired storytelling choices all the more frustrating. Representing a re-teaming of director Gus Van Sant and star/co-writer Matt Damon, the film, which looks at a energy company’s attempts to obtain drilling rights in a small town, will probably play best with those invested in the script’s political and social issues, while others may simply dismiss this as a well-meaning, sometimes graceful message movie.

Van Sant manages to capture the slow, distinctive rhythms of small-town life, commendably refusing to turn McKinley into a community of dumb yokels or founts of universal truths.

Focus Features will release Promised Land at the end of December in a limited run for awards consideration before the movie goes wide January 4 of next year. The film has several saleable elements, including Damon’s lead performance, but it may draw more headlines because the story touches on the rise of “fracking,” a controversial method of extracting natural gas from underneath the ground that has been promoted as a way to wean Americans off their dependence on foreign oil, no matter the environmental and health risks that may come as a result.

While Promised Land isn’t a thriller, it may appeal to the same adult crowds that enjoyed serious grownup entertainments like Syriana, Traffic and Michael Clayton. Still, this looks like only a modest commercial prospect that will need strong reviews and awards play to help raise its profile.

The film stars Damon as Steve Butler, a salesman for a large energy company called Global. Growing up in a small town himself, Steve is superb at convincing quiet rural communities to sell their drilling rights to Global, promising an economic windfall that will help save their struggling farms and underfunded schools. But when he and his sales partner Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand) step foot in McKinley, the townspeople, led by a well-informed high school teacher (Hal Holbrook), initially resist Global’s advances, worried by reports that fracking can contaminate groundwater and severely affect public health. The residents decide to vote in three weeks on the proposal, which forces Steve to contend with Dustin Noble (John Krasinski), an environmental activist who comes into town to warn McKinley about the dangers of fracking.

Promised Land’s early reels are its strongest, as we are introduced to the confident, savvy Steve, a man who doesn’t feel ethically conflicted about selling small communities similar to the one where he was raised on a process that may be harmful to them. (In a nice touch, it’s not initially clear if he simply doesn’t believe the myriad reports on fracking’s side effects or that he’s such a good salesman that he knows how to hide any sense of doubt.) Damon, who wrote the script with Krasinski, proves to be well-suited to play Steve, imbuing the character with a genuineness that makes his mission all the more compelling: Steve truly believes that the money that will come from fracking will fortify these impoverished towns that have been decimated by globalisation and a shrinking need for blue-collar jobs. (His own hometown suffered because of these exact economic factors, a sting he hasn’t forgotten.)

Working in the same mainstream/populist mode that marked his movies like Milk and Good Will Hunting (which earned Damon and Ben Affleck a Best Original Screenplay Oscar), Van Sant puts the gears in motion for a potentially smart drama in which we’ll see the inner workings of how a gigantic corporation uses individual foot soldiers to seduce communities through visions of big paydays. But once Krasinski’s activist arrives, Promised Land becomes a more conventional and less rewarding mano-a-mano battle between corporate Steve and good-hearted Dustin. (The fact that Krasinski’s character has the last name of “Noble” is a sign of the film’s lack of subtlety, which becomes more apparent during an overly button-pushing third act.)

Also problematic is the inclusion of Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt), a beautiful, sarcastic local teacher who attracts the attention of both Steve and Dustin. DeWitt is dependably lovely and sympathetic. (In roles like this and in Your Sister’s Sister, she’s proved to be excellent at portraying weary, grownup women whose lives haven’t quite worked out.) But Alice quickly goes from being a fun, inviting character to a simple narrative device to mark Steve’s progress in selling the people of McKinley. (At first, she seems very interested in him romantically, but after Dustin comes to town, her attraction shifts, pushed around like a narrative prop by the filmmakers.)

These problems don’t entirely diminish some strong performances and some nice small moments peppered throughout the film. Damon and McDormand have a playfully combative rapport — Sue loves picking on her hotshot younger partner — and she, as usual, is wholly authentic as an ordinary woman who conveys years of disappointment through her sad eyes and no-nonsense bluntness.

And Van Sant manages to capture the slow, distinctive rhythms of small-town life, commendably refusing to turn McKinley into a community of dumb yokels or founts of universal truths. But even Holbrook’s fine performance in a small role is mostly meant to be a stimulant to provoke Steve’s change of heart about his work. For all the timeliness of the subject matter, Promised Land too easily pushes a complex issue that pits economic stability against environmental risk into the background to focus on a familiar character arc concerning an ambitious go-getter who finds his soul.

Production companies: Participant Media, Image Nation Abu Dhabi, Sunday Night, Pearl Street, Media Farm

Domestic distribution: Focus Features, www.focusfeatures.com

Producers: Matt Damon, John Krasinski, Chris Moore

Executive producers: Gus Van Sant, Ron Schmidt, Jeff Skoll, Jonathan King

Screenplay: John Krasinski & Matt Damon, story by Dave Eggers

Cinematography: Linus Sandgren

Editor: Billy Rich

Production designer: Daniel B. Clancy

Music: Danny Elfman

Website: www.PromisedLandTheFilm.com

Cast: Matt Damon, John Krasinski, Frances McDormand, Rosemarie DeWitt, Scoot McNairy, Titus Welliver, Hal Holbrook