“You’re a good guy,” the people of McKinley, Pa., keep telling Steve Butler (Matt Damon). “I’m not a bad guy,” Steve insists. A midlevel executive with the energy giant Global Crosspower Solutions, he has come to this Western Pennsylvania town to buy leases that will allow his natural gas company to begin hydraulic fracturing — fracking — on the farmers’ promised land.
Maybe Steve is a good guy. Once an Iowa farm boy, who saw his own town devastated when the big agribusiness moved out, he has convinced himself that the only real reward the land can produce will come not from planting but from drilling — and that the “millions” in handouts he promises the farmers are less important than the hand up he’s offering to a depressed agricultural area. “I’m not selling them natural gas,” he tells his boss in New York. “I’m selling them the only way they have to get back.”
(READ: Bryan Walsh on the lure and dangers of fracking)
The town sage, Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook), has another take on Steve’s bargain with the locals. “You came here and offered us money, figuring you would help,” he tells Steve. “And all we had to do to get it is be willing to scorch the earth under our feet.” He hardly needs add, “So there.”
Promised Land has a lot of so-there moments. A fable of the city boy who needs schooling in ethics and humanity by wonderful country folk, the film is a fictional bookend to Josh Fox’s Oscar-nominated GasLand: the documentary with the indelible horror-film image of natural-gas flames spouting out of a kitchen faucet. Same message — don’t sell the farm to the energy exploiters — this time delivered by a handsome movie star and conjured up by a virtual conglomerate of thoughtful liberals: Gus Van Sant (Milk) as director and the writing team of Damon (an Oscar-winner for the Good Will Hunting script directed by Van Sant), costar John Krasinski (The Office) and McSweeney editor Dave Eggers.
(READ: Bryan Walsh on the politics of GasLand)
There’s plenty of money in natural-gas drilling — for everyone but the drillers. The U.S. economy saved about $100 billion last year due to lower gas prices, according to a Yale Graduates Energy Study Group report cited in The New York Times. But companies like Chevron and Chesapeake did so much drilling that the price of natural gas is at a two-decade low, and has plunged about 87% since 2006. Investment banks like Goldman Sachs made off like the bandits they are, getting out of the market at its peak in 2010, while the natural-gas moguls lost money by glutting the market. So there?
(SEE: TIME’s “Top 10 Best” Movies of 2012)
You may not feel sorry for the energy barons, even if they risked part of their fortune to extract a form of energy cleaner than coal, safer than nuclear power and cheaper than oil. But a reluctance by U.S. consumers to use natural gas would exacerbate the nation’s dependence on oil from foreign countries — like the United Arab Emirates, whose Image Nation Abu Dhabi film company, in a twist more cunning than any in the film, helped finance Promised Land.
(SEE: TIME’s “Top 10 Worst” Movies of 2012)
But enough global politics. What about the movie’s strategies? It sketches Steve as a master seller. With his Global salespartner Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand), he chooses just the right yokel clothes and beat-up car to fit in with the rubes. He has the friendly patter down pat; his sotto-voce sales pitch is a cool cocktail of seduction and menace; you’re sure he will Always Be Closing. Yet when Frank challenges him at a public meeting about possible water contamination from fracking, Steve stammers as if the question had never before been raised. And when a greenie named Dustin Noble (Krasinski) shows up with hellfire and faucet-flame warnings about natural-gas drilling, Steve wilts. He even loses the town’s pretty teacher (Rosemarie DeWitt) to that ingratiating Johnny Appleseed.
(READ: Richard Schickel on John Krasinski in George Clooney’s Leatherheads)
If you wonder why the old song “76 Trombones” is playing on your internal iTunes, it’s because the movie is a near-remake, with a leftist agenda, of the 1957 Broadway hit The Music Man, in which the con-man “Professor” Harold Hill bamboozled the good people of River City, Iowa, into buying a truckload of brass instruments — until he saw the light of reformation and settled down with Marian the librarian. In its larger contours, Promised Land also resembles The Joneses, the 2009 satire about four stealth-marketers purporting to be a happy family; they move into a suburb and convince the conspicuous consumers to buy expensive products from the Joneses’ company — until…
(READ: Corliss’s review of The Joneses)
The “until” is always the salesman’s Act Three ethical uptilt, which is as easy to spot in Promised Land as poisonous derricks on virgin soil. The movie is not much interested in the folks of McKinley, except in their aggregate as the selfless conservators of land they would rather starve on than sell; it’s nearly as dismissive of its supporting characters as was Eggers’ egregious Away We Go. McDormand is wasted, her character a subsidiary engima, and Krasinski (the male lead in Away We Go) is a glib savior type with a see-through spiel, while the reliable Holbrook and the glowing DeWitt make their doctrinaire points and retreat. That leaves Damon, with his gift for suggesting high normality, and one of the few actors who could slip into Steve’s skin and prove that he really is a good guy who will find a way to do the right thing.
(READ: Corliss’s review of the Dave Eggers-scripted Away We Go)
To accomplish this, Damon and his fellow writers construct a Stations of the Cross for Steve, including a verbal scourging, a crowning of threats and a surprise Judas. This Calvary is familiar from countless Hollywood social weepies, especially those directed by Frank Capra — Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Meet John Doe — in which a feckless nobody is preyed on by city slickers or Senate sharpies. One difference here is that Steve begins as the smiling predator and ends up as the suffering Capra hero, complete with climactic public humiliation. Another is that Capra’s films teem with reckless life; you could enjoy the bustle even if you didn’t surrender to the sentiment.
(FIND: A Frank Capra film on the all-TIME 100 Movies list)
Van Sant, who took over the project when Damon bowed out as director, offers no such side benefit; the movie slogs along like a Grant Wood farmer behind his plow. Damon should have called on Steven Soderbergh, who in 2009 teamed with the star on The Informant! This fact-based industrial exposé — about the Archer Daniels Midland exec who blew the whistle on the agro-titan’s billion-dollar price-fixing crimes — gradually spiraled into a deft, daft portrayal of a reformer as corrupt as the people he turned in. Alas, Promised Land offers no wiggle room, no ambiguities, eccentricities or human contradictions to its characters; they are placards with famous faces.
Left-wingers in the mainstream media — by which I mean me — are supposed to lap up a movie that plays to our farm-loving, tree-hugging prejudices. But even we know that well-meaning does not automatically equal good movie. Some organic life is needed. And the only crop Promised Land harvests is Capra Corn.