You can never be sure which Gus Van Sant you’re getting when you are about to watch a film by this stylistically promiscuous director. Will it be the sympathetic chronicler of outsider teens (“My Own Private Idaho,” “Paranoid Park”); the maker of mordantly funny black comedies (“Drugstore Cowboy,” “To Die For”); the mainstream hit-maker (“Good Will Hunting,” “Finding Forrester”); or the leading American exponent of slow cinema (“Elephant,” “Last Days”)?
Well, guess again. With “Promised Land,” we get the mainstream-activist Van Sant of “Milk,” this time working on a tale that looks at how fracking — the practice of extracting oil from shale deposits via high-pressure blasts of water mixed with sand and chemicals — is dividing small-town America. If I tell you it stars Matt Damon, you’ll no doubt expect a bog-standard social-issue film, well-meaning but a bit dry, with more attention given to “the message” than the characters.
Van Sant, working off a story by Dave Eggers, provides a twist this time. Damon plays Steve Butler, a sleazeball corporate lackey who uses his small-town roots to come across all down-home as he convinces local landowners, mostly farmers, to sign away extraction rights. The kicker, of course, is that he has to play down the known risks of groundwater contamination, risks that have the potential to destroy farming communities.
Butler and Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand) are the point people on the ground for a major energy corporation that wants to lock down drilling rights in a rural area. They change from their suits into flannel shirts and work boots and go door-to-door, trying to get people to quickly sign contracts — before they can ask too many questions — and hang out at the local bar in the evening, drinking domestic beer and singing bad karaoke in an attempt to seem like regular folk.
Yet Butler meets opposition from both the high school science teacher (Hal Holbrook) and a rather smarmy activist (John Krasinski), who start to point out the risks of fracking. Butler takes it personally, especially when the girl he’s eyeing (Rosemarie DeWitt) blows him off for enviro-activist dude.
Fracking, as it turns out, is the MacGuffin of “Promised Land”; it drives the conflict in the film, but isn’t front and center. What the film chooses to focus on instead is the notion (as Upton Sinclair put it) that “it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
Damon’s character isn’t an idiot. He’s aware of the risks fracking entails, but he’s moving up the corporate ladder and has a fixed rationale: rural Midwest towns, like the one he grew up in, are dying out from a lack of viable economic opportunities, so they may as well take the money and run. The idea that some people may value their community more than the cash baffles him, and the film illuminates a wider conflict. You could make almost the same movie in Japan about how nuclear plants get the green light from struggling rural towns.