THERE ARE A LOT of good intentions muddled up in Promised Land, and a lot of talent, too—the frustrating, almost-great film is directed by Gus Van Sant, with a story by Dave Eggers and a screenplay from costars John Krasinski and Matt Damon. Promised Land is a film with an agenda disguised as a film with no agenda, and if that sort of thing doesn't make you a little bit mad, well... then you should go see it! 'Cause otherwise it's really good.
The freakishly likeable Matt Damon plays Steve, a modern-day traveling salesman employed by the ominously named Global Crosspower Solutions. Global is in the natural gas business, and Steve is responsible for explaining to rural communities how "fracking"—the process of extracting natural gas from rock and shale—is the solution to their financial woes. Steve and his partner, Sue (Frances McDormand, a goddamn national treasure), set out to work their persuasive magic in a bucolic Pennsylvania farming community, a town with a lot of pretty farms and not a whole lot of money.
Here, Steve and Sue meet a two-pronged resistance to their efforts, in the form of a smug environmentalist (a well-cast John Krasinski) who's armed with photos of farms destroyed by fracking, and a respected local science teacher (Hal Holbrook) who argues that the science behind fracking isn't as sound as Global wants people to believe.
Promised Land is at its best when it embraces complexity: Steve genuinely believes that fracking represents the salvation of small American towns, while the townspeople are caught between a very real need for income and the worry that fracking will destroy their land.
But the film ultimately reveals a lack of trust in both the audience and its characters: What begins as a reasonably clear-eyed look at the pros and cons of fracking turns into a tale of the Big Bad Corporate Boogeyman—a transformation that's so exasperating and insulting, it threatens to overshadow the many aspects of Promised Land that are legitimately great.