In Promised Land screenwriters and stars Matt Damon and John Krasinski pair up with director Gus Van Sant (Milk) for a heart-filled commentary on the perils of the fracking industry. The result is a quiet often funny issue-based film that largely avoids preachiness by focusing on the characters rather than the politics.
The most compelling thing about Promised Land — at least for its first two acts — is its willingness to portray fracking as a multisided issue. Damon whom you can't help but root for plays Steve a representative for the fictional natural gas drilling company Global who convinces residents of rural towns to sign away their land to the corporation in exchange for a big buyout. By telling tales of his own childhood spent in a failed farming community Steve has earned himself one of the best track records in the company and is poised for a big promotion. But the sincerity with which Steve and his partner Sue (Frances McDormand) speak of the life-changing capacity of this cash infusion for the town's residents not only makes for compelling storytelling but is almost enough to make the viewer forget all they know about the havoc fracking wreaks upon the land.
However when Dustin (Krasinski) an environmentalist who is prepared to do whatever it takes to stop Global from moving into our unnamed rural town arrives on the scene the film's subtlety begins to erode. Pitted against Krasinski's suave yet moralistic Dustin Steve becomes a caricature of himself. While Damon is capable of maintaining his character's likability Steve is pigeonholed as the money-grubbing face of corporate greed — a role that hardly fits him — as the film takes a rather Erin Brockovichian turn.
While the story is one we've seen again and again — the little guy versus the big bad corporate machine is one of Hollywood's favorite tropes — Promised Land manages to set itself apart thanks to excellent performances by its exceptional cast. Damon and McDormand have the kind of natural chemistry and easy rapports that endear them to the viewer — you leave the theater wishing you had plans to meet up with them for a few beers. Hal Hobrook meanwhile is perfectly cast as the town's science teacher and film's moral core. And Rosemarie DeWitt who plays both Damon and Krasinski's love interest brings an easy grace and effervescence to the screen.
Promised Land has all the ingredients needed for a great film — fantastic cast tight writing filled with equal parts poignancy and levity and a nuanced look at a timely issue. However a third act twist distills all the lovely shades of gray to black and white undoing the moral complexities the first two thirds worked to build. Therefore Promised Land ultimately gets in its own way stopping itself from bringing anything new to a genre of films known for its predictability.