A social-issue drama handled in a very human way, Promised Land presents its environmental concerns in a clear, upfront manner but hits some narrative and character bumps in the second half that weaken the impact of this fundamentally gentle, sympathetic work. Collaborating on a screenplay for director Gus Van Sant for the third time, after Good Will Hunting and Gerry, Matt Damon stars as a natural-gas company rep who encounters more resistance than he bargained for when trying to buy up drilling rights on struggling farmers' land. This is something of a Frank Capra story preoccupied with the idea of what the U.S. used to be or is supposed to be, but the film isn't quite rich or full-bodied enough to entirely pay off.
An Iowa farm boy-turned-big-city businessman, Damon's Steve Butler receives a promotion at the outset but then embarks on a mission to scoop up drilling rights for Global Crosspower Solutions on farms surrounding a declining Pennsylvania town. Steve views his mission as an easy dunk but is prepared to slip a fat brown envelope under the table to the right town elders when necessary.
Steve's confidence stems to a great extent from his experience of seeing his own hometown, and his family's longtime farm, disappear almost overnight; he loves and misses the old way of life in small towns. He's a better pitchman as a result, understanding the needs of these folks and how to persuade them that the only way to avoid inevitable financial ruin is to take the fracking money.
The downside is the potential environmental damage. Steve, who arrives in McKinley with sales partner Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand), knows how to stress the positive and minimize the negative to locals who are basically eager to cash in. But they hit a road bump in the form of venerable retired teacher and career scientist Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook), whose calmly expressed views scarcely can be ignored.
The film's initial stretch is its best. The town is presented in a fair-minded, reasonable way, a place populated by people with their own problems and opinions but also with open minds. Steve is tempted but properly holds back from jumping right into the sack with local gal Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt). Later, he drinks too much and loses it when a smooth but ultra-aggressive environmentalist, Dustin Noble (Damon's co-writer, John Krasinski, with antic energy), rolls into town and very quickly turns popular opinion against Global.
Steve is perplexing because he has no counterattack, no ready response to the ideas and tactics employed by the rangy, upbeat Dustin. You'd think the handbook of any big industry company like Global would feature a big chapter on how to deal with environmentalists and other opposing forces. But Steve flails about like a petulant kid who just got his allowance taken away, and his dejected, pissy reaction to everything quickly saps sympathy and interest in the character.
The script's other significant deficiency lies in the utter lack of development of the Sue character. McDormand's knack for snappy, bossy retorts amuses only for a while. Her and Damon's performances engage but remain constricted by the writing.
A late twist proves genuinely surprising but feels a bit cheap, as it comes off as a screenwriting device rather than something that seems organic and of a piece with the overall concerns of the film, which are otherwise genuine and sincere.
Opens: Friday, Dec. 28, limited; Friday, Jan. 4, wide (Focus Features)
Cast: Matt Damon, John Krasinski, Frances McDormand, Rosemarie DeWitt, Scoot McNairy, Titus Welliver, Terry Kinney, Hal Holbrook
Director: Gus Van Sant Rated R, 101 minutes