Using film to advocate for one side of an issue or another is a tricky business: “If you want to send a message, try Western Union,” goes the famous Frank Capra quote. Documentaries risk being brushed off as mere propaganda—Capra produced some of that himself with the Why We Fight films—but if anything, fiction features have it tougher, because at least documentaries can make their case plainly and directly. Gus Van Sant’s anti-fracking film Promised Land, scripted by Matt Damon and John Krasinski, has the much trickier task of hiding its biases—or, at minimum, giving some dignity and credence to the opposing argument before dismantling it. It isn’t an impossible feat—the fine Tim Robbins anti-death-penalty film Dead Man Walking is scrupulously balanced—but even in intelligent, fair-minded films like Promised Land, the gears eventually start to show.
Retaining a bit of Midwestern paunch from The Informant—enough to require a reassuring pair of dad jeans, anyway—Damon stars as an ace salesman for a natural-gas company, skilled at reassuring skittish sellers with stories of his roots in rural Iowa. To a large degree, he also means what he says: He knows American farmers are struggling to make ends meet, and the chance to lease their land would give them the security and prosperity they could never achieve on their own. When Damon and partner Frances McDormand descend on the small town of McKinley, it looks like easy pickings, but they meet surprisingly stiff resistance from a well-educated old schoolteacher (Hal Holbrook) and an environmental activist (Krasinski) who undermines their case. Damon and Krasinski prove to be rivals in love, too, warring over the truehearted Rosemarie DeWitt, a flirty local teacher and landowner.
Though Van Sant is firmly in for-hire mode, as he was back when he helped make Damon and Ben Affleck’s careers with Good Will Hunting, he and the actor/screenwriters do their best to evoke the pride, hardship, and sly opportunism of their iconic heartland setting. Some information comes out indelicately—Krasinski straight-up lectures an elementary-school class on the toxic effects of shale-drilling on groundwater—but both sides get an airing, and more importantly, the situation seems plausible. But Damon and Krasinski throw it away on a third-act reveal that trades all the skillfully faked ambiguity for a lesson on environmental exploitation, thinly cloaked as a morality tale. No one seems to recognize the irony of making a film about corporate rigging that is itself outrageously rigged.
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, plot details not talked about in this review, visit Promised Land’s Spoiler Space.