In interviews, Promised Land co-stars/co-writers Matt Damon and John Krasinski have claimed that they didn’t set out to make a movie about the controversial process of hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”), but instead chose the subject after examining several possibilities for their story about a corporate go-getter changing his perspective after spending time in a small town. But watching Promised Land, it’s hard to imagine it as anything other than a machine designed to deliver the anti-fracking message, albeit one with the full weight of Hollywood talents Damon, Krasinski, Frances McDormand and director Gus Van Sant behind it.
Damon plays rising energy-company star Steve Butler, who specializes in closing deals with average folks for his company to drill for natural gas on their land. Steve and his partner Sue Thomason (McDormand) head to an all-American small town in Pennsylvania on what they expect will be a quick job, offering significant amounts of money to working-class folks for energy leases on their property. But Steve and Sue encounter unexpected opposition, first from a deceptively savvy local schoolteacher (Hal Holbrook), and then from a smarmy, resourceful environmental activist (Krasinski).
Although the movie makes token nods toward presenting well-rounded characters on both sides of the argument, there’s never a question of where the filmmakers’ sympathies lie, nor is there ever a point at which the perfunctory character arcs (Steve attempts to romance a local teacher played by Rosemarie DeWitt; Sue misses her son and sings karaoke) go beyond window dressing for the political message. Even actors as talented as Damon and McDormand can’t make Steve and Sue into three-dimensional human beings, especially not when Damon is called upon to enact Steve’s crisis of conscience and third-act change of heart (complete with heavy-handed speechifying). For a supposed expert in his highly controversial field, Steve comes off as hopelessly naïve, robbing his conversion of any real impact.
At least Damon and McDormand occasionally achieve moments of humanity; Krasinski gives one of the worst performances of 2012 as the condescending, mean-spirited environmental activist who takes sadistic pleasure in tormenting Steve and Sue (to the point of swooping in and stealing Steve’s potential girlfriend). Krasinski’s smug presence has the effect of turning sympathy against his character (and his cause), and an egregious plot twist late in the film only makes things worse, revealing the movie to be just as underhanded as the soulless corporations it’s taking to task.