“You’re the natural gas people.” That’s how folks identify Steve (Matt Damon) and Sue (Frances McDormand). There’s a lot to unpack in that assessment, and Gus Van Sant’s Promised Land is smart enough to take most of its running time to do so, spinning a clever moral comedy at the same time. In those few words are contained just about every element, from hope to greed to fear and anxiety, that makes up the emotive froth of American malaise, circa 2012.
Steve and Sue make up the advance team for a giant energy company. Their job is to convince landowners to sign away drilling rights in exchange for a few thousand dollars up front and vague promises of a share of future revenues. When the film starts, Steve is practically dry-heaving from anxiousness in the bathroom of a restaurant where he’s being interviewed for a promotion. A farmer’s son, these days he trades on what he knows about his potential signees’ hardships. Sent to make sales in the fictional McKinley, he and Sue shops for flannel shirts and jeans so as to fit in. Motivated by a lingering bitterness about his broadly sketched childhood (financial ruin, a miserable story), Steve tends to forget to take his new clothes’ tags off, but also keeps focused on his mission. “It’s delusional self-mythologizing,” he says of the rural American ideal. “Farming town fantasy.”
Both Steve and Sue know the leases they pursue could easily lead to farmers’ land being poisoned and livestock harmed by the hydraulic fracturing (fracking) process that releases the natural gas deep below ground. Both obscure these risks to get their contracts signed, Steve because he wants to get ahead and Sue because she has a son in school. They seem a curiously well-matched and confident pair, maybe even believing that they’re bringing good money to people who need it. Going door to door, Steve all Young Republican and Sue sounding wise and weathered, they appear poised to clean up.
In McKinley, though, they encounter an informed population, roused to resist by a retired science teacher, Frank (Hal Holbrook): when Steve begins his routine spiel at a community meeting, Frank starts asking questions about the side effects of fracking. One could complain that the film is stacking the deck here, setting Holbrook’s saintly forbearance against Steve’s increasingly rattled sales pitching. But, but faced with that kind of perfectly decent and grandfatherly enemy, Steve and Sue only dig in more deeply, imagining that their usual devices—a country fair, one-on-one persuasions over coffee—will get the job done.
They don’t anticipate a second obstacle, Dustin (John Krasinski), an environmental activist with a warm smile and a good line of patter, who pulls into town and starts a prankish anti-fracking guerrilla action. Krasinski and Damon’s script (working from a story by Dave Eggers) buttresses Krasinski’s usual amiable affect with the occasional sharp comeback, helping to cover over his narrow range (something that was very apparent in 2009’s Away We Go, co-written by Eggers). The script and Van Sant’s efficient direction keep Krasinski to what he plays best, an amped-up version of Jim from The Office, his affability tinted by just a touch of malice. Smartly, the film doesn’t put Dustni in the box of haloed righteousness, but instead positions him as a rival salesman to Sue and Steve (with whom he also competes for the local nice girl played by Rosemarie DeWitt). Steve and Sue are selling fool’s gold; Dustin’s selling the apocalypse.
For all its political earnestness, Promised Land is a dapper film, crisply shot in the bright green rolling hills of Pennsylvania and told without the warm fuzzies that infect too much of Van Sant’s mainstream work. It uses up too much of its store of tricks in the first half, and doesn’t know where to go with a couple of characters (a perfectly excellent romantic subplot is introduced for Sue in the form of a storeowner [Titus Welliver, superbly sarcastic], who sees right through her shtick and doesn’t mind a bit, before it’s unceremoniously abandoned). Promised Land is plainly anti-fracking (Participant Media is backing the social media campaign). But it’s also less interested in issue hand-wringing than in parsing the panics and dreams of the people slinging the dream of free money and the raw desperation of the people all too eager to believe in it.