By Michael S. Goldberger
Special to the Observer
Until some economic genius invents a great solution or we humans evolve considerably, the problems posed in director Gus Van Sant’s “Promised Land” will continue to plague us. Civilization’s ever-changing financial systems can’t help but strew new batches of winners and losers throughout the landscape, upsetting our lifestyles along the way.
In this specific microcosm, the ever-declining feasibility of small farm America and new, game-altering discoveries of natural gas beneath those compromised meadows and fields have intersected with dramatic consequence. Arriving to profit from the resultant opportunity is Matt Damon’s Steve Butler, gas company deal closer extraordinaire.
He’s a nice guy in a questionable occupation. Being interviewed at movie’s outset for a major promotion, we get a snapshot. The victim of a Caterpillar plant closing back in Iowa that reverberated through an agrarian community dependent on jobs to subsidize its fading way of life, he is a staunch realist who peddles his background with a vengeance.
Shades of the much more sophisticated and fanciful “Local Hero” (1983), about Big Oil trying to buy up a small Scottish village, here the venue is rural Pennsylvania, and the 9- Billion dollar company looking to have its way is a natural gas titan named Global. No surprise, Steve’s incursion is met with the gamut of reactions. For this, he is prepared.
However, he isn’t quite ready for the wild card that presents itself in the form of John Krasinski’s Dustin Noble, the energetic point man for Athena, a heretofore unfamiliar environmental group. While Steve has come up against such opposition in the past, this pesky adversary is hard to figure. Soon combatants, they battle for adherents.
Aiding Steve in his mission is wisecracking colleague, Sue Thomason, played with cynical wit by Frances McDormand. A single mom evincing not nearly a soupçon of the compassion we at times detect in Steve’s eyes, she’s about the commissions. Add to these personae Rosemary Dewitt as Alice, the local schoolmarm, and the formula is in place.
Expect neither great surprises nor some philosophically profound answer to the conundrum in question. Indeed, fracking, the method by which Global unearths the land’s hidden treasure, remains controversial. Steve begrudgingly acknowledges that, but in the same breath contends, plain and simple, if you’re not for gas, then you’re for coal and oil.
Thus, once again, we are presented, thanks to the 1st Amendment exemplified in film, with yet another feature length mulling of Hobson’s choice. But then that’s part of being human. We’re perennially figuring how many angels will fit on the head of a pin, a habit begun in our superstitious past and now applied to our so-called enlightened present.
Expectedly, the townsfolk take sides. It’s the eco contingent following the lead of local wise man Frank Yates ( Hal Holbrook) —now suddenly abetted by Krasinski’s operative—against the realists, pragmatists and a sprinkling of rather unsavory opportunists. Hence, if one is a thinking person, you just can’t help being a little betwixt and between.
Fact is, we like Steve, probably because he is the everyman in all of us… a regular sort trying to find the path between altruism and practicality. When he takes more than just a business interest in teacher Alice, but finds his affections impeded by the nervy Dustin, he seems the underdog. But sorry, can’t tell you about the twist that’s in store.
Suffice it to note that having the gray area of the plot overlaid with the uncertainties represented by the drama’s natural enemies supplies an elevating element to the scenario. A solid portrayal by Mr. Krasinski, who co-wrote the screenplay with Mr. Damon, lends new invigoration to what is essentially an old cliché in currently topical clothing.
Good supporting performances establish the local color and personalize the quandaries confronting the citizens of the Pennsylvania burg. Tensions rise. To frack or not to frack? It’s a loaded question, delivered with an implied insult to a long cherished heritage. The gas company didn’t create the economic crisis, but it sure is taking advantage of it.
Global is an apt name for the megalomaniacal corporation in this metaphor. Count on a steady stream of such commiserative dramas as we struggle and adjust to doing business in a continually expanding world economy. All of which is but a variation on a recurring theme: man against the machine and the attempt to preserve humankind’s dignity.
I think we’ll win in the long run, though it could take a few centuries. You see, we have it in us, a hopeful notion tendered in this and almost all films about the daunting odds our species must continually overcome. And rest assured, after we find a solution to the woes outlined in “Promised Land,” you have my good word we’ll be on to the next dilemma.
“Promised Land,” rated R, is a Focus Features release directed by Gus Van Sant and stars Matt Damon, John Krasinski and Frances McDormand. Running time: 136 minutes