BY JENNA SIMPSON
In Promised Land, Matt Damon plays Steve, a successful, decent guy who buys the rights to drill for natural gas from poor/middle class folks in rural areas. Their way of life, small scale farming operations, is dying out. The company he works for offers them money not for the land, but what’s underneath it. Steve was raised in one of these small farming communities, and he knows what it’s like when the industry dries up. Some might say he goes to these places to exploit their poor economic position, but he truly believes he is offering them a future.
Promised Land focuses on a town where things go awry due to concerns about the process used to extract natural gas, fracking, which can be associated with environmental effects like water pollution that can lead to health problems and deterioration of the land. (Cue environmental activist Dustin, played by John Krasinski, who shows up to oppose the company.) Steve has conflicted feelings about towns like this, both kind of hating them and trying to save them. He needs to feel like a good man, to be a good man, even while he’s lying to people about the potential revenue their land can bring. He’s not a perfect protagonist, but Damon’s generally likeable quality saves him.
Krasinski shows range beyond the goofy, adorable smart aleck we often see. He plays a good adversary, and at times his toothy grin borders on the sly, even sinister. Damon and Krasinski are friends in real life, and wrote the screenplay together, and their camaraderie shows in their performances. And Frances McDormand is, as always, perfection, but she’s really underused, not unlike most women actors in movies that are largely about men. The only other woman we really see is the lovely Rosemarie DeWitt (of United States of Tara fame), who is not much more here than a prize to be won.
Gus van Sant directs, and squeezes out both good performances and a beautiful looking movie, which the gorgeous landscapes of rural Pennsylvania made easy. All said, Promised Land does a good job of presenting a fairly complicated set of issues in an entertaining way. It’s hard to know who to cheer for. On one hand, the town is suffering economically, and this deal could really help them. On the other hand, the risk associated with fracking is real.
If you want a solid movie that keeps your brain engaged, give Promised Land a gander. Oh, and did I mention there’s a twist? I didn’t see it coming. Bonus points for that.