By Laura Reiley
Times Staff Writer
It helps that fracking already sounds like a dirty word, something you'd say when your thumb meets the business end of a hammer.
A drilling technique for accessing natural gas trapped just beneath the earth's surface, fracking is at the center of Promised Land, directed by Gus Van Sant and starring Matt Damon and John Krasinski (who co-wrote the screenplay, based on a story by Dave Eggers).
Deep-shale horizontal hydraulic fracturing gets technical pretty quickly, but anyone tinged just a little "green" is troubled that it involves shooting water mixed with chemicals deep into the soil. So when Global Crosspower Solutions comes to a little farm town to promote the wonders of fracking, it ends up being a big corporation (the bad guys) against the plucky environmentalist (the good guy).
Not so fast.
Steve Butler (Damon) and his partner Sue Thomason (a bravely grizzled-looking Frances McDormand) come to town to throw a lifeline to a farming community struggling in a rapidly changing world. Butler has an evangelical's zeal (his own Iowa farm town died when the local Caterpillar factory shut down), with the kind of flannel shirts and dirt-caked boots the locals recognize as their own. He works for Global, but he's not a bad guy, something he doggedly asserts to local school teacher Alice (played with appealing moxie by Rosemarie DeWitt). Alice is a love interest he loses to another interloper, environmentalist Dustin Noble (Krasinski).
Noble's name alone is enough to suggest that he wears the white hat in this earnest drama. The film's first half unfurls predictably and somewhat slowly, Noble battling Butler for the townspeople's allegiance, plain-talking oldtimer Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook) gumming up the works for Butler.
But then things get interesting. Well, kinda interesting. Noble isn't all he seems and Damon's character grimaces his way through a change of heart. As Yates plainly states, "You came here offering us money, figuring you were helping us. All we had to do was be willing to scorch the earth under our feet."
Structured like a straight-up polemic against raping the land in the name of fuel sources, Promised Land doesn't make good on all its promises. Okay, if foreign oil dependence is bad and fracking leads to increases in air emissions and water contamination, where do we turn?
Butler and Thomason are stuck with a rattletrap truck rental as they go about Global's business. At the end, Thomason vrooms out of town in a fossil-fuel fug. Butler, and moviegoers, are left head-scratching about what's best for small-town America — a takeaway that's surprisingly wan given the brainpower of the writers/director.