starring Matt Damon, John Krasinski, Frances McDormand and Hal Holbrook
screenplay by John Krasinski and Matt Damon
directed by Gus Van Sant
This is the first Frances McDromand film I have seen since she starred in Fargo (1996, directed by her husband Joel Coen). Based on a story by Dave Eggers, Promised Land follows two corporate salespeople to a small rural Pennsylvania town in an attempt to buy gas drilling rights from the local residents. The film highlights a gas extraction process known as “fracking,” or hydraulic fracturing, in which high pressure water is injected to underground shale deposits. It is an environmentally contentious process.
The story pits the big city corporate suits against dirty, dungareed, small town farmers. Despite the environmentally questionable aspects of fracking the fact is that many small rural towns, lacking economic diversity, are dying and the money offered by the big gas company is a small fortune, enough to allow people to start new lives. But rural small town America remains proud, stubborn, suspicious of outsiders, and resilient. A cultural conflict is set up with conservative, land-loving traditionalists who take their relationship with the land very seriously on the one hand, against smooth-talking, fancy, big-city money men on the other.
Steve Butler (Damon) and Sue Thomason (McDormand) arrive in town, change their professional suits for denim and plaid, and begin separately canvassing the town’s farmers one by one. It’s interesting to see their different sales pitches: money; family; humor; over-stating the money and under-stating the estimated gas reserves, etc. I think being a salesman is a rather obscene profession: petitioning people to buy stuff from you. Yuck! Steve and Sue encounter problems when local resident Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook) stands up in the town meeting to speak out against fracking. He’s an old guy but he’s not just a crank. He’s a legitimate world-class scientist who happens to be living there in retirement, so Steve and Sue can’t brush him off as a senile stick-in-the-mud.
After that a bunch of stuff happens until finally Steve, who grew up in a small farming community and always uses his background in his sales pitch, becomes disillusioned with the professional subterfuge of his company and finds renewed identity and contentment in the farming way of life.