Call a film about fracking in small-town America Promised Land and you not so subtly invite audiences to think of that ostensibly sacred stretch of Earth pledged by God, according to the Hebrew Bible, to the Israelites, a promise that’s been the justification for the oppression of Palestinians in the region for over a century. That association would be tacky if the land we now call the United States of America wasn’t also regarded long ago as a promised land by colonialists, who saw the new world as their manifest destiny. Gus Van Sant’s new film certainly offends, but it’s not for how it tritely pays lip service to the knotty ideas of land rights, heritage, and tradition implicit in its title, but for how it views the struggles of the landowners at the heart of its story as subservient to their oppressor’s triumph of the spirit.
Meet Steve Butler (Matt Damon), a corporate salesperson for a natural gas company that wants to drill in the rural town of McKinley. In order to appeal to the town’s yokels, Steve and his fellow snake charmer, Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand), dress in clothes that wouldn’t make the bargain bin at Walmart. The deviousness of their sales tactics and patronizing view of small-town America are implied by their obviously dumbed-down demeanors and rehearsed interactions with the townsfolk, yet the way Steve and Sue often dish to one another about their working habits and general worldview would only make sense if they were strangers to one another. As such, an observation about every town two hours outside of any city looking “like Kentucky” rings phony, as contrived as Sue stressing how a beat-up truck is the appropriate vehicle for the dynamic duo’s latest hit job. Such is the canned nature of Damon and John Krasinski’s screenplay, a seemingly endless barrage of piled-upon, for-our-benefit-only hectoring.
Steve and Sue seduce the McKinley populace with the promise of millions, until Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook), a retired science teacher, and his flair for Googling raise eyebrows. Forced to rethink their strategies, the gas company’s lackeys are dealt a bigger blow by the arrival of the improbably named Dustin Noble (Krasinski), a protestor who warns a bunch of McKinley barhounds of Steve and Sue’s false promises with a sob story about what fracking did to his family’s farm. Delivering his speech during the local bar’s amateur night, Dustin finishes just as Springsteen rises from the sound system, a coincidence so dubious it provokes Steve to reasonably call bullshit on the peacenik, bombarding him with a litany of predictable disses, such as the charge that he eats granola. If, even to audiences, everything about Dustin feels too suspiciously on the nose, like the show-and-tell against fracking that treats us like the schoolchildren the lecture is actually meant for, the screenplay partly absolves itself of insult by a third-act reveal that only confirms the film’s sham moralism.
Throughout Promised Land, which evinces a pleasing but self-consciously torpid sense of the everyday, Steve is always being nudged toward a resurrection of sorts, and he appears genuinely stunned by the impulsiveness one McKinley citizen is driven to by the prospect of becoming a millionaire, embarrassed by a few spirited this-is-all-we-got shows of pride, and is even hilariously shell-shocked by a little girl who sells him lemonade, just prior to his requisite final showdown with the townsfolk, refusing to “keep the change.” But, in the end, the essential goodness of this former farm boy isn’t (re)awakened by any real understanding or respect for the honor of these people and how and why they tend to a dying land in economically wearying times, but from the anger of having been cockblocked by Dustin and then betrayed by the natural gas company. So, rather than attest to the dubious means by which property has passed hands in this country since time immemorial, Promised Land settles for delivering a fantasy about the salvation of the corporate fratboy, a self-aggrandizing vision substantiated by the misty-eyed Holbrook giving Damon, during the film’s climax, the good ‘ol “that’ll do, pig.”