It’s too easy to frame a corporate takeover of a town as bad guys vs. good guys nowadays, and Erin Brockovich pretty much shut the door on underdogs triumphing against environment-polluting corporate malfeasance. Images of flames shooting from the ground or water faucets are already ingrained in the popular imagination thanks to television journalists and Josh Fox’s documentary Gasland, so a film involving fracking for natural gas needs to take the next step. Director Gus Van Zant, working from a script by his Good Will Hunting collaborator Matt Damon and John Krasinski (and a story by Dave Eggers), does just that in Promised Land.
Matt Damon is Steve Butler, an ambitious and confident salesman for a company that wants to tap the natural gas beneath McKinley, a dying farm town. The citizens are mostly desperate and ripe for Steve’s pitch, which involves offering landowners more money than they would otherwise see in their lifetimes. Butler’s associate Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand) is along for the trip, and ingratiates herself with the locals alongside Steve, who takes a shine to a local schoolteacher (Rosemarie DeWitt).
That ingratiation leads to a hangover for Steve that causes him to be bested by another schoolteacher (Hal Holbrook) during a town meeting. Then, Steve is shaken up by an oddly confident environmentalist (John Krasinski), who has trailed Steve and Sue to the town and openly challenges him. Steve is no corporate toady, though; he comes from a farm family and honestly believes he offers a way out for the doomed townsfolk. Steve’s dilemma is America’s dilemma, with no easy answers but a chance to find real truth for him and McKinley to act upon. Promised Land both raises questions and raises the bar for films that engage in environmental debate by exploring the shades of gray between opposing forces.