Salesmen are typically depicted onscreen as the quintessential American phonies. That one set of phonies are being dramatically indicted by actors is an irony that we will leave hanging. In Promised Land, ace salesman Steve (Matt Damon) travels from small town to small town to sell natural-gas fracking leases. (That's the controversial practice of pumping toxic chemicals 8,000 feet underground to loosen natural gas.) Next on his itinerary is McKinley, Pennsylvania, where he meets his partner Sue (Frances McDormand, keeping up her end of a testy on-the-job rapport that's a low-key pleasure).
PROMISED LAND Opens Fri., Dec. 28 at Meridian and Lincoln Square. Rated R. 106 minutes.
Everything is routine until a science teacher (Hal Holbrook) speaks up at a community assembly, citing reports that fracking can contaminate water supplies, which leads the assembly to set a date three weeks off to vote on allowing Steve's company to drill. This forces Steve and Sue to stick around McKinley and gives time for environmental-agency worker Dustin (John Krasinski) to rally local opposition.
Damon and Krasinski developed their screenplay from a story by Dave Eggers, then hired Gus Van Sant to bring his deft, accessible touch to their advocacy drama. McKinley is rendered as an NPR-tithing audience's dream of the idyllic small town, without an eyesore Walmart in sight. Oddly, it offers little sense of the hard-times desperation that Steve's pitch assumes.
While Steve and Dustin vie for a schoolteacher (Rosemarie DeWitt), their PR war is waged in McKinley's social centers: the diner, where Dustin gets tauntingly back-slappy with the locals, and the bar, where Sue takes the stage to sing Hank Williams to win hearts and minds.
Yet when Steve begins to waver in his commitment to the company line ("If you are against this, you're for coal and oil. Period"), it seems a matter of predestination—without dramatic heft. Promised Land is a hard-sell movie because it doesn't have the confidence in its audience to make any other outcome seem viable. What causes the scales to fall from Steve's eyes is his discovery that his employer has been playing with a stacked deck, making sure it can't lose. With an ending never once in doubt, Promised Land exemplifies in dramatic structure the same cheating its hero can't stomach.