Corporate skullduggery the nice-guy way in ‘Promised Land’
Matt Damon stars in "Promised Land."
Updated: December 31, 2012 11:44AM
★★This unconvincing and surprisingly dull drama, in which the soul of an old-fashioned small-town is tempted by the mammon of a corporate boogie monster, might have rung a little truer, and been considerably more involving, if Matt Damon had been a little more comfortable with embracing the dark side.
As it is, Damon has to spend a lot of time in “Promised Land” telling people “I’m not a bad guy,” “I’m not a bad guy” — as if he needed to be reminded himself.
That’s not surprising, because in the natural order of things, Damon’s character Steve Butler, an ace corporate salesman for a big natural gas company, who’s adept at snapping up drilling rights from distressed farming communities at exploitive, rock bottom prices, actually would be kind of a bad guy — and that wouldn’t stop him from enjoying his work. But, of course, that’s not the sort of role Damon, who co-wrote “Promised Land” with co-star John Krasinski (and planned to direct it before withdrawing in favor of Gus Van Sant) would write for himself. Instead, he has contrived to make himself a decent man in a dirty business, one who is naïve enough to believe his company is truthful, fair and well-meaning. Even though his own day-to-day business practices involve bribery, chicanery, outright lies and cutthroat low-balling.
That doesn’t work, even for a minute, and as a result, “Promised Land” is basically a non-starter.
In broad outline, its story is similar to Bill Forsyth’s much- better 1983 film “Local Hero” — each of them centered on the misadventures of a city slicker sent to a small town to buy up the land rights for a corporate giant. But where “Local Hero” turns into a whimsical love story, “Promised Land” is primarily concerned with environmental issues. Though it also tosses in a little romance as a crowd pleaser.
Butler and his partner Sue (Frances McDormand) are sent by the energy giant Global Crosspower Solutions to lease the land in the small farming town of McKinley, PA as the first step in a statewide expansion. Former small-town boy Butler is assured that if he’s successful, he will be made a corporate vice-president, and he has no doubt that he will be, because the town has been hit hard by the recession and Global’s millions might be its only way to survive.
He and Sue roll into town, rent a beat-up car and dress themselves in down-home clothes at the local “Guns, Groceries, Guitars and Gas” shop, and believe they’re all-set for a quick, easy three-day sales trip. Until they run into unexpected opposition, first from respected high-school science teacher Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook) and then from a young environmentalist named Dustin (Krasinski), who tells the townspeople about his own small town, which was devastated by Global’s drilling.
At that point, “Promised Land” revs up the controversy surround the practice of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” in which energy companies inject pressurized sand, water and chemicals deep into the ground to break up rock deposits to release natural gas — constituting what some consider a great risk to the environment. With Frank and Dustin rallying the townspeople, Steve starts losing ground, a situation that’s complicated by his budding relationship with attractive schoolteacher Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt) — who also has a sizable chunk of land up for grabs.
Now, if Steve and Dustin locked horns about the big issue — to frack or not to frack — that would be understandable. And who knows, maybe the love of a good woman might help Steve see the error of his ways. Instead, though, Steve crumples when Dustin makes his case to the townspeople, as if he had never heard the concerns of the anti-fracking contingent and had no idea how to counter them. In fact, he seems shocked by the disturbing news. We can almost see the anguished thoughts taking root in his mind: “Can it be true?,” “Is Global Crosspower Solutions actually an evil corporate despoiler of the good green Earth?,” “Does this mean that I, Steve Butler, am not a nice guy?”
Things get even more far-fetched after a surprise last-minute reveal, a Machiavellian plot twist that forces Steve to take a moral stand — for no good reason and to no real avail. But at least he is at peace with his conscience. You know, that thing that would have kept him from lasting a month in his line of work if he had one.