By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
Steve Butler is an advance man for a natural gas company, a guy who swoops into a small town, dresses like the locals and paints large dollar signs in front of their eyes.
For “Promised Land,” this means we’ll be watching this very sincere, thoroughly committed corporate shill as our hero.
He’s played by Matt Damon, which helps a bit. But this idea of putting an unsympathetic fellow at the center of a movie is the most interesting wrinkle in “Promised Land,” which arrives as a pleasant and predetermined story with its heart in the right place.
Butler comes to the town of McKinley, Pa., along with his professional partner, Sue (Frances McDormand).
The locals they meet are generally happy to sign away their land in exchange for healthy checks and the promise of future rewards.
Complications emerge. A local schoolteacher (Hal Holbrook) suggests that fracking might have consequences even beyond messing up the land. An environmental activist (John Krasinski, who wrote the script with Damon) paints a dire portrait of what the gas company has left in its wake elsewhere.
And, in an amusing sequence that involves multiple shots of booze, Butler meets a local teacher (Rosemarie DeWitt, late of “Your Sister’s Sister”), who could show him a thing or two about appreciating the western Pennsylvania land he’s so eager to frack.
“Promised Land” is directed by Damon’s “Good Will Hunting” partner Gus Van Sant, who assuredly has on his mainstream cap here. Van Sant manages to keep the movie honest in spots where it might have gone in the direction of simple propaganda or salt-of-the-earth bromides.
As it is, there are a few of those. The script isn’t able to disguise how thin its actual story is, as though the impulse to make a movie about the issues involved with fracking for natural gas predated the somewhat stock characters on display.
Still, it’s an easy watch. Damon, DeWitt and McDormand carve out little human shadings for their characters, and the small town environs have a good feel to them: front porches and backyards alike have a pleasing authenticity.
Most of the plot points are easy to predict, although one late-in-the-day revelation is a pretty good twist.
And “Promised Land” doesn’t, after all, aggressively promote one side of its issue, although given the solid liberal credentials of its makers we can probably assume which side they’re on.
No, it promotes a more old-fashioned notion that people might be well-advised to think about things before making big decisions.
Pretty tame, really, whatever the motivations behind it.
A pleasant enough if predetermined movie about a natural-gas rep (Matt Damon) who comes to a small Pennsylvania town to sell the locals on the profitability of fracking the land. Gus Van Sant’s mild film has nothing more radical than “think before you act” on its mind, which might account for its tame demeanor, but the cast (Frances McDormand and John Krasinski included) and the rural locations help the process along.
Rated: R for language.