Fracking — the process of drilling miles below the earth's surface and injecting water and chemicals to extract oil or natural gas — is at the center of “Promised Land.”
But actor-screenwriters Matt Damon and John Krasinski don't dig into the technicalities of fracking, its impact on a town or the bottom line of whether it is generally safe.
What Damon, Krasinski and director Gus Van Sant (“Good Will Hunting,” “Milk”) are after here is the morality of corporations going after large profits, and the public's need to ask questions and dig for answers.
Damon plays Steve Butler, an ace corporate salesman who, with partner Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand), goes from town to town talking farmers into selling the mineral rights for fracking under their land.
In fact, Steve is so good at his job, buying up more acres for less money than his peers, that he's up for a big promotion.
The economic downturn makes his job easier as small farmers struggle to hang on. Promises of becoming millionaires are hard to resist. And the idea of making the country more energy-independent also sells.
But Steve and Sue run into problems in their latest rural town when a respected local science teacher (Hal Holbrook) gathers opposition, citing health concerns — especially about polluting underground water.
Then Dustin Noble (Krasinski), representing an obscure environmental organization, shows up preaching danger, winning over bar patrons, schoolkids and anyone else who will listen.
He even competes with Steve for the attentions of a local woman (Rosemarie DeWitt).
Gradually it becomes clear that closing the deal on land rights is just a paycheck for Sue. She's not interested in moral questions.
For Steve, it's personal, and not just because his pride is wounded. He saw his grandfather lose the farm after a local manufacturing plant closed down and the nearby town died. He thinks he's saving these people from a certain fate: economic failure.
What he hasn't considered is the value of keeping a family farm in the family, and the pride of stewardship so the land remains productive for generations to come.
He also hasn't considered whether he should trust what his employer is telling him about the safety of fracking. And a local politician is not the added layer of protection he should be.
Van Sant and Damon raised the issue of trust in large, powerful institutions as a side point in “Good Will Hunting.” Here they make it the movie's centerpiece, along with the central conflict brewing inside of Steve.
It's a clever, if somewhat simplistic, script, and the cinematography shows off a bucolic rural landscape.
What's perhaps most worth taking in are the performances of Damon, McDormand and Holbrook, all at the top of their games here. The story is more engaging than the message is strong, but they're both worth the time.
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