The awful Bruce Springsteen title-grab suggests that Promised Land is an ultimately patronizing look at a severe and still underpublicized threat to the common good: natural-gas fracking. Sometimes, that's how the film plays. The usual suspect is Dave Eggers, dew in his eyes and heart on his sleeve, who came up with the story: a semicynical, semisweet tale of Matt Damon and Francis McDormand, salespeople from Global Oil.
Wrapped in newly bought flannel, the two spoilers round up natural-gas leases on family farms in the heartland. Director Gus Van Sant stages this big-city invasion in Pennsylvania—appropriate because the state is currently being riddled by the frackers.
John Krasinski, who co-wrote the script with Damon, plays Dustin Noble, a folksy activist in a green bio-diesel pick-up truck, who arrives to make a campaign against the gas leases. He's the most Eggersian of the characters. Noble's demonstration of what happens when the fracking waste-water leaks and goes flammable is performed as a demonstration for school children using plastic toys.
There are certain things Damon can do and cannot do with conviction onscreen. Espousing a political platform that's different than his own politics is right in the "cannot do" column. Damon here is another of Eggers' lost boys; he's ultimately reparented by Hal Holbrook in a flatulently conceived but well-played role of a humble local wise man.
However, Van Sant's direction is a primer in how not to heat up the material. It's often relaxed and droll. And the women in the picture strengthen the scheme. Rosemarie DeWitt charms as Alice, a teacher and "mockeuse" who helps pump up the small-town eccentricity, as per the last movie about oil exploration and a more-needy-than-greedy small town, Bill Forsyth's Local Hero (1983). At its best, and to its credit, Promised Land resembles that minor Scottish classic. McDormand's own alluring hard-headedness is so sharp you wish Promised Land was about her. Thanks to McDormand, you never end up asking the hypothetical questions that studio people always fear you'll ask, such as their favorite: "She's a good woman and a good mother. Why doesn't she quit that morally degrading job?"
R; 106 min.