Gus Van Sant's Promised Land -- co-written by stars Matt Damon and John Krasinski from a story by novelist Dave Eggers -- is the kind of socially conscious movie that Robert Redford has been trying to make for pretty much his entire directing career, and it's so much more than a political tract precisely because, unlike Redford, the filmmakers never forget to keep the human stories -- not the issues -- front and center.
Damon stars as Steve Butler, a representative for a natural-gas company who, as the movie opens, travels with his colleague Sue (Frances McDormand) to a small, financially struggling rural community in order to buy up land rights so his business can extract the resources it believes are under the citizens' feet. Because Steve is making this offer at a time when farms are failing and the economy is collapsing, and because he genuinely believes this is the only way he can preserve the sort of small-town life he grew up with, he quickly wins over many townspeople.
However, at a community meeting, a local science teacher (Hal Holbrook) explains to everyone in attendance that "fracking," the method used to extract the gas, has in many cases caused severe ecological damage to water supplies and farm animals in the surrounding area. Just as Steve thinks this will be the only obstacle to his goal, along comes Dustin (John Krasinski), an environmental crusader who shows up and canvasses the locals in order to warn them of the ramifications of selling out to Steve's corporation.
While that synopsis makes it sound like a turgid, manipulative, liberal-do-gooder movie, Promised Land actually delivers a compelling human drama along with its message. Damon's character isn't a bad guy; he's doing what he thinks is right, and his flirtation with a local woman (Rosemarie DeWitt) has a natural ease that also helps keep us from ever assuming that Steve is just a corporate shark. The whole film is populated with first-rate actors who understand that little moments are what build memorable characters, and so it's a kick to see skilled performers like Titus Welliver as a local store owner who flirts with Sue -- they've got a genuine, low-key chemistry.
This movie comes 15 years after Damon and Ben Affleck became household names thanks to the Van Sant-directed drama Good Will Hunting, and it's hard not to draw comparisons between the two films. Interestingly, Steve is a slick, ingratiating guy who comes to realize he might not have as tight a grip on the world as he thought -- exactly the kind of role that would have fit Affleck perfectly. That being the case, it's fun to see how Damon shades the character more toward earnestness than unctuousness. However, Dustin, with his seemingly unyielding sincerity and Midwestern good cheer, is a stereotypical Damon part, an everyman who appears to know more than he wants you to think. At first, Krasinski plays the part as an edgier version of Jim from The Office, but a key confrontation between Dustin and Steve at a local bar, in which the activist directly challenges the businessman about what he thinks he's capable of, gives Krasinski the opportunity to let forcefulness overtake his usual laid-back vibe. It's some of the best work of his career.
Thanks to uniformly good performances, rock-solid direction, and a lived-in humanism, Promised Land manages to avoid the pitfalls that sink so many films like it -- it's the sort of movie that will make right-wing culture warriors bemoan it as a product of "liberal Hollywood," but it possesses an undeniable appeal for everyone.