In many ways, “Promised Land” travels the same moral pathways that made “Up in the Air” so compelling. Just as that Oscar-nominated film delved into the complicated issues that arise when human values get mixed in with business, “Promised Land” cast a relatively even light over the unwinnable choice many farmers face when they have to decide between two evils.
Residents of a small community — the kind of Anywhere, USA, where there are stores that proudly boast they sell “Guns, Groceries, Guitars, Gas” — must decide whether to lease their land to a gas company for deep drilling because they need the money or reject the offer because of all the environmental issues.
Matt Damon plays salesman Steve Butler, the handsome-faced representative who shows up with his partner (Frances McDormand) to lock up leases that could be worth millions to both the farmers and the gas company. What appears to be an easy task, considering the number of foreclosures dotting the rolling landscape, hits a snag when a wide-eyed conservationist (John Krasinski) — with the little too obvious name of Dustin Noble — shows up with evidence of the disasters of past drillings.
The screenplay by Krasinski and Damon, based on a story by Dave Eggers, leans heavily on the side of saving the planet. But there are arguments made for why such a tricky venture makes sense. The loudest arguments against the deal come from local science teacher Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook). But even he, in the end, admits that he has the luxury of being old enough that he would not have to deal with any of the negative consequences.
There’s a secondary story line about the love triangle of Butler, Noble and Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt,) a local teacher who could charm the husk off corn. This geometrically challenged relationship never develops enough to make it as interesting as the main plot, but it also isn’t dealt with enough to be a distraction.
What makes the movie is Damon, who has a complicated mixture of all-American looks with a corporate heart. It’s the way he so effortless slips from a man of conviction to a man of the people that makes the role and — by extension — the film work. He provides the kind of firm touch to make the movie’s message come across with absolutely clarity without making the viewer feel like they have been slapped or punched by the point.
A lot of that comes from the direction by Gus Van Sant, who manages to make big business bad without looking maniacal and small-town America look quaint without feeling like a haven for the backward and ill-informed. Van Sant also shows an appreciation for the land by often allowing the camera to quietly drift over the landscape like a lone cloud on a summer day.
“Promised Land” is the latest film to deal with a dilemma that continues to grow as the economy shrinks. Sadly, as so clearly shown in this movie, the question of doing the right thing is no longer a black-and-white issue. It’s now tainted with deep greens.