'I'm not a bad guy," the guy played by Matt Damon in Promised Land insists. A traveling salesman who is very good at his job - persuading farmers to let his company extract natural gas from their land - Damon's Steve Butler puts on his old boots (his grandfather's) and his old country boy smile (he's originally from Iowa) and promises struggling families whopping big checks if they let Global Crosspower Solutions move in and start hydraulic fracturing on their acreage.
Of course, Steve is reassuring himself as much as he's assuring the locals. He plays down the environmentalists' warnings about fracking - the poisoned well water, the dead cattle, the heavy trucks rumbling down back roads - and tells folks at town meetings this is their last best chance. The economy is going south, small-town America is dying, here's your opportunity to turn it all around.
With a screenplay co-written by Damon and actor John Krasinski, from a story by Dave Eggers, and directed by Gus Van Sant, Promised Land is a frustrating film to watch. It should be better than this, smarter than this.
Damon's Steve is partnered with Frances McDormand's Sue Thomason, a colleague with a kid back home and not a shred of a guilty conscience. She and Steve pull into town - the fictitious McKinley, Pa., with its motel and diner, bar and school, encircled by rolling green hills - then rent a beat-up pickup, buy some work clothes, and get to work. (The film was shot outside Pittsburgh.)
Damon and McDormand display the easy rapport of longtime coworkers, joking and poking fun at each other, but they're serious about what they do. And we want to like them. And Rosemarie DeWitt, who plays a teacher Steve meets at Buddy's Place & Tap, wants to like him, too.
But even before Krasinski's suspiciously affable environmentalist, Dustin Noble, starts handing out fliers and scaring classrooms of kids with his farm-on-fire demonstration, the suspicion that Promised Land is setting us up has already lodged in our heads. Despite its able cast (the principals are joined by the ever-steady Hal Holbrook as a deceptively savvy science teacher and farm owner, and Titus Welliver as the seen-it-all proprietor of a guns/gas/groceries/guitars shop), the script's seams begin to show, and burst. No matter where you stand on the fracking issue - pro, con, on the fence - you'd like to be treated with more intelligence and less preachifying. Or at least be treated to characters with more than simply transparent motives. Nothing resembling the complexity, depth, and detail that made George Clooney's downsizing consultant in Up in the Air so human, so compelling, can be found in Damon's character.
When redemption comes looking for our hero, he goes for it. But it's not an act of conscience, or courage, so much as it is Promised Land's predictable final act.