‘Promised Land’ delivers entertaining sermon

01/04/2013 8:09 AM

01/04/2013 8:09 AM

“Promised Land” is an engaging and entertaining — if preachy — look at Big Energy and fracking — the land-and-water-wrecking practice of drilling and pumping water and chemicals into the ground to extract natural gas from shale.

To Steve Butler (Matt Damon), a consultant who came from farm country himself, farming and the small farm town lifestyle are “delusional self-mythology” believed by simple people living in the past. His “money for nothing” offer — underground leases — is “the only way (embattled, indebted small farm owners) have to get back.”

He’s just gotten a big promotion with Global Cross Power Solutions. But dropping into an Anytown, USA named McKinley with his partner, Sue (Frances McDormand) is a sobering come down. Renting an ancient Bronco II and buying flannel at Rob’s Guns, Groceries, Guitars & Gas won’t be enough this time. It may be a one-bar/one gas station town, but the locals are going to make him work for this.

Hal Holbrook is the high school science teacher who has Googled fracking. And as willfully uninformed as some of his shortsighted, let’s-cash-in neighbors might be, the teacher gets things called to a vote. Bribes to the local board of supervisors won’t be enough.

To make matters worse, a slick “hippy environmentalist” (John Krasinski) shows up with posters of dead cows and poisoned farms. You almost start to feel sorry for the fracking folks as public opinion shifts.

Damon and Krasinski co-wrote the script, and they set up a war of wills — rivals trash-talking each other, both flirting with the cute age-appropriate schoolmarm (Rosemarie DeWitt). Who will win?

But we already know that, don’t we? The movie is a stacked deck of cards.

McKinley — the movie was filmed near Pittsburgh — really is dying. We see desperation in the eyes of the first farmer (Tim Guinee of TV’s “Revolution”) we meet. Others, such as a rube played by Lucas Black, just envision dollar signs. But in either case, their way of living is going extinct. “Promised Land” pulls its punches in making that counter-argument.

Damon the Oscar-winning writer does something nobody else in Hollywood would — write a dumb character for Matt Damon to play.

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