Gus Van Sant knows how to make movies about complicated relationships between men (“Mala Noche,” “My Own Private Idaho”), and he knows how to make movies about social issues (“Elephant,” “Milk”). He even knows how to direct Matt Damon (“Good Will Hunting”). Setting him loose on “Promised Land,” which Damon and co-star John Krasinski adapted from a story by Dave Eggers, seems like an obvious fit, and in terms of sheer directorial style van Sant does a creditable job.
Where this story fails is in its narrative focus. Gas company glad-hander Steve Butler (Damon) rolls into a small, economically depressed town to tantalize the locals with exaggerated predictions of how much oil wealth may be waiting for extraction on their property. (A good salesman knows when to adopt the opposite tactics, though, and Butler does this when negotiating with a city councilman for what kind of bribe the councilman can demand.) But too many other facets crop up to muddy what ought to have been a clear-cut study of personal conflict, a struggle between ambition and doubt. There’s a romance angle (itself muddled with intimations of a romantic triangle); there’s an ecological angle (overshadowed, unfortunately, by thriller-style twists and kinks in the plot).
Butler stands at the center of this half-baked film, but doesn’t hold the film together. His skill lies in connecting with small-town folk, winning their trust through a combination of low-key charm and genuine concern, as a survivor of an economically ravaged small town himself, for their prosperity. At the same time, he knows that he’s rooking them for the benefit of his company, a tradeoff he’s willing to make given that he’s about to receive a major promotion.
What Butler seems to reject out of hand is the idea that fracking —— a process of extracting oil from shale using high-pressure chemical fluids —— could be dangerous and damaging to the environment, contaminating ground water and destroying crops and livestock. Butler regards as alarmist propaganda tales of well water so badly polluted that it can set alight straight from the tap. Local resident and retired scientist Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook) warns the town’s residents of potential catastrophe, and calls for a vote on whether to allow the fracking to take place.
Stories of ecological disaster are also the stock in trade of Dustin Noble, an environmentalist who shows up to challenge Butler and warn the townspeople about fracking. Noble claims to have been raised on a dairy farm that was decimated when fracking contaminated the water table. He and Butler collide in a not-quite-violent manner, with Noble sizing Butler up and judging him to lack confidence in his own message. From there it’s a short step for Noble to put the moves on Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt), a local schoolteacher on whom Butler has his eye.
The locals, except for Yates, are mostly depicted as willing dupes, practically salivating at Butler’s fictions of serious wealth. Even Alice seems to lack wit and will; she’s happy enough to be squired around by either Butler or Noble, seemingly oblivious to the fact that she’s a pawn in their personal war. When the locals push back, as when a group of men confront Butler in a bar, it becomes obvious that Butler believes in the essence of his own tall tales, even though he’s conscious of how he distorts the prospects of the people to whom he’s selling. What Butler wants is a chance for “fuck you money,” serious cash that opens doors and attracts opportunity. But does he want that as much for the town’s hard-pressed families as he wants it for himself?
In contrast to his partner, Sue (Frances McDormand), for whom one small town is pretty much like any other and all the locals are human sheep to be fleeced, Butler is a beneficent visionary and an idealist. For Sue, it’s a job; for Butler, it’s a way to assuage his personal pain at having seen his hometown dry up and blow away in the wake of a factory closing.
As Noble and Butler both work to influence the town’s vote, the story drifts away from the complex, and outrageous, political issues that surround fracking and becomes mired in a series of explosive revelations that feel false and drain the film of its vitality. By the time the last move is played, the story has become obvious and the characters have lost their dimensionality. What might have been a film with a message becomes a tangle of loose ends, dead ends, and dead weight.