Gus Van Sant has taken two very different filmmaking paths in his career. One has been a decidedly indie adventure, with admirable but little-seen films such as Elephant, Restless, Paranoid Park and Gerry. The other leads directly to the multiplex, with more mainstream efforts such as Good Will Hunting, To Die For, Milk and that ill-advised Psycho remake.
Promised Land, starring Matt Damon, Frances McDormand and The Office's John Krasinski, and written by Damon and Krasinski from a story by bestselling author Dave Eggers, falls squarely in the second camp. In fact, you don't even have to know much more than the most rudimentary synopsis -- fracking for natural gas comes to an impovershed Pennsylvania farming community, trouble ensues -- to know where it's going from start to finish. Spoiler alert: Energy companies aren't your friend, according to Promised Land.
The movie, which originally was supposed to be directed by Damon, threatens to become one of those late '60s/early '70s heavy-handed message movies, but it's somewhat salvaged by Damon's innate likability and the chemistry among the cast. It also has a special resonance for North Texas considering the conflicts over fracking that have raged in the region.
Damon plays Steve Butler, a stand-up, shoot-straight kind of guy who's a wizard at getting small-town homeowners to sign on the dotted line, allowing the energy corporation that he works for to drill on their property. He grew up in a dying Nebraska town himself, so he knows these people; he can feel their pain.
When Butler and co-worker Sue Thomason (McDormand) show up in yet another city full of folks weary of recession and rough times, they're at first welcomed like Santa Claus. But a local high school science teacher (Hal Holbrook) begins raising questions about the safety of fracking and a mysterious newcomer, environmentalist Dustin Noble (Krasinski), throws up roadblocks at every turn, whipping up a tidal wave of resistance as a result.
To add romantic insult to geological injury, Noble even has the nerve to ask out the woman (Rosemarie DeWitt) Butler's pursuing.
The movie -- heavily criticized by energy companies before its release -- rests on the moral quandry that Butler finds himself in as he begins to have doubts about the business he's in.
Damon is empathetic as a man conflicted about his career and its consequences. He knows that fracking offers a financial boost for many struggling families like the ones he knew back in Nebraska, but the seeds of doubt planted in him about its possible side effects are starting to bear fruit.
There are other strong performances as well, namely from Scoot McNairy (Argo, Killing Them Softly) as an embittered man who sees no hope in either fracking or farming.
Yet when Damon and Krasinski go for a third-act twist, the whole thing feels contrived and manipulative, as if they didn't trust the innate drama of the situation to carry the day. There's a good movie to be made about the conflict over fracking, but Promised Land promises more than it delivers.
Exclusive: AMC NorthPark, Dallas. Opens in wide release Jan. 4.
Cary Darling, 817-390-7571