Promised Land, the muckraking new film co-written by and co-starring Matt Damon and John Krasinski, wants you to think about "fracking," the controversial and environmentally troubling means of natural-gas extraction that's the subject of the latest energy-industry boom. But I found myself instead mulling why no one's put Damon in a straight romance.
Directed with anonymous assurance by sometime indie auteur Gus Van Sant, who also helmed Damon's writer-actor breakout Good Will Hunting, Promised Land is in the mold of environmental exposé films such as The China Syndrome, A Civil Action, or Erin Brockovich. Damon is Steve Butler, who escaped his own dying Iowa farm town and has risen to be VP of land management for a multi-billion-dollar energy company via his astounding success at leasing rural lands for fracking.
Explaining his effectiveness to his bosses, Steve says that he relates to his targets because he comes from the same world of football Fridays, tractor pulls, and the "delusional, self-mythologizing bullshit" of the "farming-town fantasy." The way Damon sees it, fracking is an easy sell in rural areas losing industry and dependent on government help to make farming profitable. "I'm not selling them natural gas. I'm selling them the only way they have to get back," he says.
Promised Land suggests complexity in making the film's protagonist a representative of the ostensible corporate villains, while making Steve's do-gooder foil, a community organizer played by Krasinski, seem just as conniving and less sincere. But a few weeks after seeing the film, these machinations are less memorable than Damon's ostensibly inessential bar-room meet-cute with conveniently charming local Rosemarie DeWitt.
It's reminiscent of Damon's work with DeWitt's Your Sister's Sister co-star Emily Blunt in last year's The Adjustment Bureau. The metaphysical plot was a dud, but the pair's dry flirtations were a kick. Damon's IMDb filmography lists 64 titles, and few, if any, are primarily relationship-driven, much less anything you'd call a romantic comedy. Maybe, given the dire quality the latter subgenre has fallen into, this is smart on his part, but pair Damon with an actress like Blunt or DeWitt, who can match his brainy, naturalistic charm, and there's a good movie to be made.
Beyond the Damon-DeWitt chemistry, Promised Land has some other nice performances, especially Frances McDormand as Steve's only-doing-my-job-I've-got-a-kid-to-feed corporate sidekick and 2012 breakout Scoot McNairy (Argo, Killing Them Softly) as an ornery farmer who rejects Damon's pitch.
Beyond performance, Promised Land is interesting for its unresolved attitude about life outside the cities and burbs. The film seems to think it's correcting Steve's merciless diagnosis of small-town life, but the corrective feels phony — as does a final-act plot twist. Unless farming towns in Pennsylvania are radically different from those in Arkansas, I feel comfortable saying there's no single-and-available Rosemarie DeWitt, moved back from the big city to teach grade school and live in a big, beautiful house all by herself, just waiting for the right suitor to make his way into town. And that elderly farmer riding around in his pick-up truck (here, Hal Holbrook) is probably not a courtly Cornell and M.I.T. grad and former Boeing engineer ready to contradict corporate misinformation. But even hard-selling a romantic ideal of small-town life for an urban liberal audience, Promised Land never really answers the challenge Damon's character makes: Fracking may not be the answer for depressed rural economies, but what is?
Opening Friday, January 4th