In Promised Land, Matt Damon plays an aw-shucks nice guy who wants to be the caring face of capitalism. He has come to rural Pennsylvania with his pragmatic colleague (Frances McDormand) to persuade the town of McKinley to lease their land to a natural gas corporation. The economics of it are pretty brutal.
Towns like this one are dying, unable to survive on agriculture, and some of the locals embrace the offer with enthusiasm. Selling up could make them millionaires. But that's before they understand about hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking", which extracts the gas by a high-speed drilling of water and chemicals. The consequences can be dire: your livestock poisoned, your kitchen taps spouting flames.
The fracking controversy is a political hot potato, though perhaps not such a terrific draw for a Saturday night movie. Gus Van Sant, working from a script by Damon and John Krasinski, tries to humanise the debate, and he has such good performers that for a while it works. Hal Holbrook plays a high-school science teacher who kick-starts the opposition, and Krasinski – another, taller nice guy – plays an environmental warrior who mobilises them.
The latter isn't just winning the propaganda war; he also outflanks Damon as rival for the sassy school teacher, played with a wonderful, sexy wryness by Rosemarie DeWitt, an actress whose name is one more perfect thing about her.
Promised Land comes over as a less whimsical version of Bill Forsyth's Local Hero, a fable of downhome values giving corporate ambition a proper pasting. But its heartfelt good intentions are rather tiresome; it pokes its righteous finger with all the subtlety of a cattle-prod. (Those seeking an informed consideration of fracking should seek out Josh Fox's 2010 documentary Gasland.)
The only interesting nuance here is Damon's mounting self-doubt as the proselytiser for natural gas; he's done all that befits a conscientious man, but is he really in the right job? In trying to position him as the moral hero the script performs a last-minute switcheroo, the sort that insults both the characters and the audience. I won't disclose what happens, other than to say it's unforgivable.