There are two separate movies going on in “Promised Land.” One of them is an earnest anti-fracking drama that tries very hard to avoid seeming preachy and doesn’t manage the trick. The other is a sympathetic and unexpectedly nuanced portrait of small-town America at the crossroads of the past and future. That one doesn’t win out, but it’s a beaut while you’re watching.
The former is written by costars Matt Damon and John Krasinski, working from a story by novelist Dave Eggers; the latter comes to us through the individual performances and the observant directorial eye of Gus Van Sant. Damon plays Steve Butler, a hard-driving salesman for a natural gas company who arrives in the (fictional) town of McKinley, Pa., with his partner, Sue (Frances McDormand). They promise the local farmers untold riches in exchange for leasing their land to the company’s deep-shale drills.
It looks like an easy sale, once Steve has tamped down the bribe-happy expectations of a politico (Joe Coyle). At a pro forma town meeting, though, an elderly farmer named Frank Yates — surprise, he’s a retired Boeing engineer played by Hal Holbrook — raises the specter of environmental devastation and spiking cancer rates, and soon a green activist named Dustin Noble (Krasinski) is prowling the back roads, rousing the locals and posting photos of dead cows everywhere.
The screenplay wants to stoke the growing backlash against hydraulic fracturing — which involves pumping fluid laced with chemical additives deep into rock layers — and fuel the debate about energy consumption and environmental damage. Honestly, though, Van Sant doesn’t seem all that interested. For him, “Promised Land” seems like an excuse to remind moviegoers that small towns are populated by individuals of varying hearts and minds rather than the clichés of TV ads.
Heartfelt agenda aside, “Promised Land” is mostly about belonging. Steve fled his own little town years ago, after the local factory pulled out, and every lease he gets signed is a way to prove he’s better than the hicks. He’s a wolf in Sears clothing, while Sue just wants to get the job done and get back to her kid. (Even on autopilot, McDormand is her usual unsentimental delight.)
The love interest — there has to be a love interest — is a hard-drinking schoolteacher named Alice who crosses Steve’s wires because she seems to have his number. It’s the kind of role that Rosemarie DeWitt has cornered lately and needs to outgrow, the one area where the screenwriters seem more intent on Americana than America. But the bar where she (and everybody else in town) hangs out has a busy, chaotic funk that feels right. No one two-steps. They’re just there to celebrate making it through the day.
It’s a fine line between interesting characters and “Northern Exposure” quirk, but the movie mostly stays on the right side of it. We know we’re in for something out of the ordinary — or more true to the ordinary — when the owner of the general store, a caustic, good-looking sharpie played by Titus Welliver, immediately spots the two leads as gas company interlopers and hits (pretty effectively) on Sue.
Damon is likable enough in a fuzzily written role; the problem is that he’s simultaneously the movie’s hero and villain, and he doesn’t have the nimbleness to pull it off. (Who could? Robert Downey Jr.? Matthew McConaughey on one of his good days?) Krasinski’s got the more interesting part as an idealistic tree-hugger who’s cannier than he lets on. The actors have written before (notably Damon, with his Oscar-winning co-scripting credit on Van Sant’s “Good Will Hunting”) but they have something to say rather than a story to tell, and the agenda ends up defusing the drama. Van Sant just has a place he wants to visit. He makes us want to visit it, too.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.