Slick salesman Steve Butler (Matt Damon: We Bought a Zoo) rolls into a Pennsylvania farming town with a plan. The agricultural community is dying, and Steve has the solution: Lease your land to a natural gas company. Global Natural Gas wants to frack for gas pockets beneath the land, and the desperately poor community will get a percentage of the take.
Steve is especially good at his job, as he grew up in a small farming community that died out when a factory shut down. Bitter that these people don’t understand that their dying way of life should be abandoned, Steve treats the townspeople with a mixture of condescension and contempt. In spite of his noxious personality, these simple folk love Steve and his contracts.
His offering seems like a great deal to the townspeople, who sign up for Global’s program with visions of college funds and paid bills. But charming stranger Dustin (John Krasinski: The Office) puts a cramp in Steve’s plan. It seems Dustin grew up on a farm very much like the ones in this town, until Global’s fracking poisoned the earth and destroyed everything he held dear. Committed to truth, justice and the American farming way, Dustin has made it his mission to stop Global from ruining other small agricultural communities.
Now Steve and partner Sue (Frances McDormand: Transformers: Dark of the Moon) must race against Dustin and time to complete this lucrative deal. Will the town be saved? Will Steve see the error of his ways? Why does this movie have such an odd view of small towns?
Promised Land is a heartfelt movie that manages to insult small town America even as it attempts to hold it up as a paragon. Director Gus Van Sant (Restless) creates a portrait of the noble local yokel that would probably enrage these simple folk — if they went to the moving pictures. There’s an American flag at every door, lush green pastures and plump, greasy-haired, camouflage-wearing folk as far as the eye can see. They don’t use cell phones, they have never seen a computer and they stare in wonder as the big city gas people explain facts and figures. In spite of these technological gaps, big city salespeople can use their Blackberries and Skype to their bosses.
Promised Land is a movie of complaints and no solutions. Natural gas is bad. American farms are dying. Farms should reject evil corporate intervention to preserve both the environment and their cherished way of life. Van Sant seems to believe these people should suffer poverty with dignity, which is a great philosophy if you live in a luxury condo in LA.
Promised Land may have been meant as a heartfelt love note to a way of life gone by the wayside, but it comes off as a condescending treatise on the virtues of the simple life created by people who have long forgotten what it feels like to fly coach.