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'Promised Land' review: Fracking the farm

Matt Damon starring as Steve Butler in Gus

Matt Damon starring as Steve Butler in Gus Van Sant's contemporary drama, "Promised Land," a Focus Features release. Photo Credit: Focus Features

Fracking? It isn't the sexiest movie topic, even with Matt Damon playing a cute corporate executive trying to buy up drillable land in a poor farming town. And if your politics tilt rightward, you might be predisposed to dismiss "Promised Land," which co-stars John Krasinski as a rabble-rousing environmentalist.

As it turns out, "Promised Land" isn't dull, though the bias is another matter. Fracking, a natural-gas extraction method, has been a financial boon to struggling communities even while raising concerns about its environmental impact, and this movie's screenplay (written by its two stars with Dave Eggers) does present forceful arguments from both sides. The movie never gets stridently political, but it ultimately insists on doing things the typical, Hollywood way.

Damon is appealing as Steve Butler, whose Iowa roots have made him a successful sweet-talker at Global Crosspower Solutions. "I know them, they know me," he says confidently before landing in little McKinley, a hard-luck Anytown, along with his trusty sidekick, Sue Thomason (a very good Frances McDormand). This place is like shooting fish in a barrel -- and schoolteacher Alice, played by Rosemarie De-Witt, is the prettiest fish -- until Dustin Noble (a slippery Krasinski) comes to town and starts passing out gruesome photos of dead cows. Dustin gets McKinley to question Steve, and forces Steve to question his conscience. He even starts doing all right with Alice.

"Promised Land" does a good job of making the political personal -- Steve's insensitive but impassioned rant to a group of stubborn farmers is the film's best and boldest scene -- and director Gus Van Sant (Damon's "Good Will Hunting") takes a straight-ahead, almost hands-off approach. But the screenplay eventually sacrifices shades of gray for black and white. It needs a villain, and you can bet it won't be the farmers. Conservatives, you might have been right after all.

PLOT A slick energy executive battles a cagey environmentalist for fracking rights in a small farming town.

RATING R (brief strong language)

CAST Matt Damon, John Krasinski, Frances McDormand, Rosemarie DeWitt


BOTTOM LINE A well-intentioned look at a fraught issue, but the Damon-Krasinski screenplay ultimately opts for Hollywood oversimplification.

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