A Dave Eggers treatment adapted by Matt Damon and John Krasinski and preened heartland pretty by Gus Van Sant, Promised Land aims to fasten human faces on the natural-gas drilling debate, and it succeeds in this right. But though “message” movies rarely lack partisan bombast, this one has such a light touch that even its strongest declarations sound like bets-hedging.
Steve (Damon), a poised corporate up-and-comer partnered with veteran saleswoman Sue (Frances McDormand), sets his boots down in the small, state-unspecified town of McKinley, tasked with leasing land for hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” Those boots, turns out, aren’t just benign footwear; they belonged to Steve’s blue-collar Iowa granddad, and it’s this corn-fed upbringing that gives him an edge when convincing struggling agricultural families to scribble on the line. Things are going well, especially with lovely local Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt) — until Dustin (Krasinski), a backpack-toting activist with an agenda, starts hurling tree-hugging wrenches in all of Steve’s gears.
Riling up unrest with claims of deadly fracking on his clan’s farmstead, Dustin proves to be a worthy opponent in the public-sentiment arena, which (of course!) drives Steve to second-guess his Big Gas ethics. But that’s all he really does. Some residents can’t wait to rip off their hunk of liberating “fuck-you money”; others, rallied around wizened science teacher Frank (Hal Holbrook), shout down what Steve claims is the only way to save their houses. Like any polarizing scrap, an educated compromise skulks somewhere in the middle, but this screenplay hides instead of hunting for it.