A salesman for a natural gas company experiences life-changing events after arriving in a small town, where his corporation wants to tap into the available resources.
Once there was a young man from a small town with big dreams and a lot of talent who made a big splash in the big world and rode the wave which resulted to ever higher feats of success. But in the process some questionable decisions were made and one day you have no choice but to look him the face and ask 'what were you thinking?'
I could be talking about Steve Butler (Matt Damon), a successful land salesman for a powerful natural gas driller (or E&P as they're none in the biz) who has just been made VP of Land Management and needs to seal the deal on one last plan to prove he's worthy of it. Or I could be talking about Damon himself as star turned artist and auteur or I his old "Good Will Hunting" colleague, director Gus Van Sant. All three of them are good, decent individuals who believe in what they're doing but somewhere, somehow have just lost their way. The result of that is "Promised Land."
What to say about "Promised Land?" It's such a dull pudding of a film words don't immediately spring to mind, good or bad, to describe it with. Bland. Bland is a good word. Ill-conceived. That's a conjunction but still. Pointless. Hopeless.
Actually that's all much harsher than "Promised Land" really deserves, it's just that with the quality of the people working on it, it should be capable of so much more than what it delivers.
Part of it is the hokeyness. Part of it is the hamhandness. Damon (who co-wrote) and company have decided to cast their fable (and that's really what it is) in a picturesque Pennsylvania farming community where everyone knows everyone, houses have actual picket fences and major public meetings are held in the high school gym in between basketball games.
Into this piece of faux American sweeps butler and his partner Sue (Frances McDormand) to lease all of the mineral drilling rights in the county before someone else can because there is a veritable fortune of natural gas underneath it. Or that was the plan until a charismatic environmental activist (John Krasinski who also co-wrote) shows to explain all the dangers involved with drilling and why the gas company's plentiful dollars aren't enough to consider doing away with the town's heart.
It is exactly as preachy as it sounds, right down to a too long scene of Dustin explaining how hydraulic fracturing, the process by which natural gas is removed from shale rock, works and why it is bad for the environment. And not all the charm and charisma in the world can hide the fact that you're watching a literal after school special.
Part of that is because no one involved has gone to much effort to hide the fact. Steve is supposed to be a good guy, a guy who deep down believes what he is doing is right after growing up in a small farming town and watching it die because "the myth of the small farm town is dead." He's supposed to give all of the positive reasons why gas drilling is good and necessary and shouldn't be demonized but you can't get past the sense that he doesn't believe it. Probably because he doesn't believe it.
There's nothing wrong with having a film with a point of view or which is trying to push a message. But you have to do it with art. A message by itself is nothing; it has to be cloaked in character and story. Maybe you agree with "Promised Land's" point of view, maybe you don't. But it doesn't really matter because "Promised Land" doesn't matter.