Values and Reality Don’t Mix in Promised Land

This isn’t the typical “small town vs. big company” story. Although there are clear good guys and bad guys throughout the movie, each character seems to switch from one role to the other as the narrative progresses.

Steve Butler (Matt Damon) is a likable and moralistic natural gas company sales executive. But like all good anti-heroes, his experiences have skewed things to the point where his morals are out of step with reality.

He comes from a small town that decayed after a big plant closed down, so he thinks convincing other small-town types to sell property to the natural gas company is the only way they can survive. He’s there to give them a lifeline.

In the opening scene, Butler is getting praise from a gas company bigwig over his ability to buy twice as many towns as his peers—for half the price. He buys towns up acre-by-acre so that the natural gas company can then extract resources.

The environmental risks of fracking are Butler’s boogeyman throughout the sales process.

While Butler and his partner, Sue Thomason (played by Academy Award-winner Frances McDormand) sit in citizens’ living rooms and convince them that selling their property to the gas company is all things to all people, it’s clear that they’ve done it countless times before.

Director Gus Van Sant does an incredible job establishing how human and down-to-earth the two characters are before we even see them doing their dirty business. Damon and McDormand are pitch-perfect in scenes of casual joking, delivered in the kind of shorthand that old friends develop.

Butler has the chip on his shoulder from his hometown going extinct and Thomason has a faraway son who has no time for her. Both of them look worn and ragged throughout the feature—far from the portrait of powerful corporate sales people that we’re used to.

Because they’re so likable and decent, seeing these two execs as the film’s protagonists feels a bit like watching a movie centered on the trials and tribulations of Dr. Evil from the Austin Powers movies—sure, he wants to take over the world, but try to see it from his point of view.

Despite knowing that what these execs are doing is wrong, we get enough into their mindset to root for them. The impoverished small-town people sure make it difficult for them, though. And the annoying Austin Powers type making cameos just long enough to foil our two execs’ plans is environmental activist Dustin Noble (played by the ever-likable John Krasinski).

Not only does the aptly named Mr. Noble help reinforce the town’s doubts over whether the price of this easy money is far too high, but he even makes moves on poor Butler’s in-town love interest.

Within the confines of this rural town, the big exec is actually the little guy and the townsfolk and environmental representative threaten everything he’s worked for.

It makes perfect sense that this movie is being released in January because the direction, script and acting make it a serious Oscar contender.

It even has controversy; pro-fracking groups were upset in advance that this movie might sway public opinion against them. But the recent explosion of gas lines in West Virginia might be doing that too.

This movie is also extremely timely, as the conversation over how to meet energy needs without relying on foreign oil—and protecting the environment—is ever-present in our society.

Promised Land in theatres Jan. 4, 2013

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