I'm not a plumber, but even I know that flames shouldn't shoot out of a water faucet. When most people think of the process of natural gas extraction called hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," they probably envision the viral video from the documentary Gas Land in which allegedly contaminated water catches fire from a kitchen tap.
Fracking becomes the subject of a contentious small-town debate in Promised Land, a film written by co-stars Matt Damon and John Krasinski from a story by hip novelist Dave Eggers. Director Gus Van Sant restrains himself from pushing the fracking panic button, never stooping to exploitation-style shots of blazing fixtures. Promised Land instead offers a sober, respectful assessment of a disappearing way of life, but rarely strikes many sparks.
Promised Land unfolds as a personal struggle for Steve Butler (Damon), a salesman up for a big promotion at a natural gas conglomerate called Global. With his wisecracking older partner Sue (Frances McDormand), Steve visits a new small town in a new state and begins pitching struggling farm owners to sell drilling rights to their land. Steve hails from a small town devastated by a factory closure, and genuinely believes that Global can provide the townsfolk with the cash they need to protect their homes and secure their children's future. Damon clearly recognizes his strengths, co-writing a role that plays to his fresh-faced earnestness.
After taking pains to establish Steve as a caring supersalesman, Promised Land proceeds to undermine his competence. When a schoolteacher (Hal Holbrook) challenges him over fracking safety concerns at a town meeting, Steve hems and haws like he's never been asked a question before. Then Steve finds a rival in the town's affections from Dustin Noble (Krasinski), an even more charming outsider from a small town devastated by fracking. For a while, Promised Land mines some winning comedy at Dustin's easygoing ability to outfox Steve at his own game.
After putting all of the ingredients in place, however, Promised Land fails to turn on the heat. Despite the excellent cast, including Rosemarie Dewitt and Titus Welliver as shrewd locals who flirt with Steve and Sue, respectively, the conflicts between the characters never come to a head. Van Sant's quiet tone increasingly muffles the action and it's difficult to generate much concern over Steve's crisis of conscience.
For a film ostensibly against fracking and the giant corporations that practice it, Promised Land makes a surprisingly weak case against it. The film argues eloquently that the heartland's small farming communities face seemingly intractable problems, but goes mum at providing solutions. Despite its good intentions and talented team, Promised Land generates little heat or light.