Though the name may conjure up images of a land flowing with milk and honey, "Promised Land" instead concerns itself with the rivers of natural gas that dwell below the surface of America, and the struggle that has already begun between small towns teeming with traditional and disappearing ways of life and a multi-billion dollar industry that will do what is necessary to turn a profit. As a film that boasts outstanding performances and beautiful filmmaking, "Promised Land" is a drama both timely in subject matter and fantastically entertaining.
Steve Butler is a top salesman in a unique industry. He acquires the land rights to drill for natural gas, one tiny Mid-Western town and one farm lease agreement at a time. Though his techniques are dubious, he and his sales partner Sue (Frances McDormand) are at the top of their game, making huge profits for their company and Steve's moving up through the ranks. The duo are nearly unstoppable but Steve begins to question their practices and the entire business of fracking after they run into problems in their latest venture, up against a grassroots campaign led by a school teacher Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook) and a new-in-town environmentalist Dustin Noble (John Krasinski).
Directed by Gus Van Sant, "Promised Land" is based on a story by Dave Eggers and the screenplay was penned by Matt Damon and John Krasinski. The duo also star, and this is no vanity project, but a real, solid and legitimate piece of filmmaking. The screenplay has depth and life, and the cinematography complements it -- spectacular without being showy, capturing what well might be the last throes of the farming lifestyle in America, small, well-worn towns populated with hard-working people. Under Van Sant's watchful directorial eye there's poetic moments of art house beauty in this mainstream drama. The soundtrack is equally mesmerizing, simple guitar-driven songs throughout that unifies and strings together the naturally beautiful countryside imagery, and slows the pulse, reminding us of the continued existence of a quieter kind of life.
"Promised Land" is a wonderful reminder that it can be all too easy to forget the value of other ways of life and the rest of the world when surrounded by like-minded people, and whether this kind of short-sighted behavior occurs in big cities or small towns, it's no less reprehensible in either. The film does a good job of painting the small town in a balanced light, eschewing the all too easy option of portraying the townsfolk as simpleminded yokels. As the natural gas people underestimate the town, so too do we as an audience.
Damon is compelling as a good man striving to succeed, a man who understands the necessity of change, but silently mourns his own lost small town childhood. As always, Krasinski is effervescent and charming, and this time especially so, as the upstart environmentalist intent on putting a stop to the business of fracking. Rosemarie DeWitt (as a bubbly schoolteacher) and Hal Holbrook shine in their supporting roles, never overstepping their bounds, content to turn in outstanding performances that effortlessly make the rest of the cast look even better. However, the real star of the film may very well be Frances McDormand's world-weary no-nonsense hard-seller Sue, who refuses to pity Steve as things begin to fall apart, and remains realistic throughout, eternally reminding Steve that business is business and not to get too caught up in the details. Sue is the perfect stand in for the skeptical audience, for as often as we may wish to align ourselves with the old world sensibility of Frank, the energetic moral fervor of Dustin or the ingrained idealism of Steve, most of us are more like Sue -- turning a blind eye, trudging on with what must be done and putting any niggling doubts out of our minds at the end of the day.
Promised Land has a few flaws, but the ones that it does have can be mostly overlooked. There's a few moments that may rub you the wrong way, a plot point or two that either fails to really move the story forward or simply makes no sense at all. But all of that is boorish nitpicking for what is really a wonderful film that will appeal to a diverse audience, if they can get past the sigh-inducing political nature of natural gas drilling as a concept, and accept a warm and vivacious character driven drama with moments of light-hearted beauty throughout. With strong performances all around, "Promised Land" is compelling and riveting, captivating without being preachy, and idealistic without resorting to nauseating sentimentality.