Just as Gus Van Sant’s career has complicated the old “one for me and one for them” formula (more like “one for me, one for them, and one for whoever’s interested”), Promised Land continually shifts the ground beneath its own feet. Adapted by co-stars Matt Damon and John Krasinski from a Dave Eggers story (and originally intended as Damon’s directorial debut), the film seems at first glance to be a straight-line anti-fracking melodrama. You find yourself waiting for the You Don’t Get It, Do You . . . It’s Not About Money speech, albeit with the expectation that it will be framed within Van Sant’s eternally disarming mixture of sophistication, charm, on-the-spot insight, and carefully nurtured and harvested innocence. The moment never quite arrives. Actually, such a viewpoint is expressed at some point in this winning film, only to be answered, echoed, qualified, turned inside out, left for dead, revived, and understood in a new light. Damon and Krasinski’s script isn’t completely solid, but it follows a believably wayward path to a lovely, muted ending. Like Sideways, Promised Land is about a man who takes the entire length of the narrative to knock on a woman’s door.
The woman in question is Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt), a science teacher born and bred in the little Pennsylvania farming town visited one fine day by the team of Steve (Damon) and Sue (Frances McDormand). They are rising stars at the natural gas firm Global, 85 percent confident that they can deliver to their employers all the necessary drilling leases, wrapped in community approval, within a matter of days. Steve’s answer to the standard anti-fracking argument is compelling: The pastoral dream of independent farming is long gone (he knows whereof he speaks because he grew up on a farm in Iowa), and the money offered by companies like Global allows the recipients real and immediate freedom. When he gets to the part about potential health hazards, he can talk past the specifics and sling bullshit with the best of them. Unlike countless other movies that have trod the same path—big business vs. working class, city vs. country, economic concerns vs. ecological awareness—Promised Land is grounded in an admirable frankness about money and its importance in the lives of all concerned parties.
That missing 15 percent of confidence pervades the movie with its behavioral intricacy and, up to a point, drives its action. Steve and Sue spend a lot of their time trying to figure out how to present themselves—what clothes to wear; what language to use; what tone to strike at the local café in the morning, in the bar at night, and in the homes of citizens, each of whom is finally an individual to be neither typed nor classified. This performance anxiety opens the door to a greater self-consciousness for Steve, who starts to worry about whether or not Alice and, a little later, Frank (Hal Holbrook, in another moving late-life performance) will recognize that he is essentially a good man.
Steve’s transformation from Global executive material to the embittered observer of a fraught situation seems a little rocky to me, but Damon, McDormand, Holbrook, DeWitt (who gives a very good performance—the hope within her character seems to keep rising one notch at a time), and their director keep the film aloft: it’s been a while since I’ve seen such accurately observed small-town life, and such a careful concentration on decency and honor. Promised Land has a plot twist involving Krasinski’s militant environmentalist that throws the movie for a loop; it feels at once broadly insightful on Eggers’ part and perhaps a little too tricky for the movie to bear. Yet it does nothing to lessen the moral and emotional refinement of this film.