Like the anti-teachers' union drama "Won't Back Down" earlier this year, "Promised Land" is a movie with a clear political agenda that attempts to portray both sides of the issue ... for a while at least.
The subject couldn't be more timely in the Mahoning Valley, which sees fracking for shale gas as the latest potential savior from the economic problems brought on by the collapse of the American steel industry 35 years ago.
Matt Damon and John Krasinski, who wrote the film in addition to starring in it, have been vocal in questioning the environmental impact of fracking. And the fact that a big chunk of the financing for the movie came from Image Nation Abu Dhabi, based in the oil-rich United Arab Emirates (which sees fracking as an economic rival), will make its motives suspect to fracking supporters.
What the movie does best is capture the economic desperation that fuels the industry's growth. The smartest thing Damon and Krasinski did in their screenplay was not make Damon's Steve Butler, a field rep for a $9 billion drilling company, a shady huckster out to dupe the locals.
He saw firsthand the economic devastation in the farm town where he grew up after its principal employer closed. In Steve's mind, "I'm not selling them natural gas I'm selling them the only way they have to get back."
It's what makes him so effective in the field in persuading land owners to sign away drilling rights to their land.
WHAT: "Promised Land"
STARS: Matt Damon, Frances McDormand, John Krasinski, Rosemarie DeWitt, Hal Holbrook and Titus Welliver.
STORYLINE: Reps for a drilling company arrive in a small Pennsylvania community hoping to secure the right to drill for shale gas while an environmentalist tries to thwart their efforts.
DIRECTOR: Gus Van Sant
RATING: R for language.
There are a few residents portrayed as dim bulbs looking for a quick buck - Lucas Black plays a man who starts making big purchases before the ink is dry on the contract and months (years?) before he'll see any royalties - but the townspeople generally are conscientious and see fracking as the only hope for a better tax base, better schools and a better future for their families.
When the present is so bleak, gambling with the environmental future doesn't seem like much of a gamble to some.
To win the hearts and minds of the townfolk, Steve is up against Dustin Noble (Krasinski), an environmentalist who is trying to sway land owners with tales of dead livestock and contaminated water supplies caused by fracking in his Nebraska hometown.
And, in one of the contrivances that start to build up in the script, Butler and Noble also compete for the attention of Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt), a local school teacher who inherited her family's farm. Dustin gets under Steve's skin and as his affection for Alice grows, he starts thinking about what he's really selling to these people.
Butler's partner in the field is Sue Thompson, perhaps the most fully realized character in the story, thanks to another fine performance by Frances McDormand. In a movie about folks being asked to make hard choices fueled by economic necessity, Sue is a woman who spends weeks at a time away from her children in order to provide for them financially.
When Steve starts wavering off message, McDormand makes it clear that Sue's desire to get him back into always-be-closing mode isn't driven by company loyalty but by her own need for them to succeed.
"Promised Land," which is directed with workmanlike efficiency by Gus Van Sant (who directed Damon in "Good Will Hunting"), moves along pleasantly enough until a third-act surprise which doesn't work in any way.
There's a serious logic flaw in the twist that undercuts the movie's attempt to veer into '70s-style conspiracy thriller territory, and it never really recovers.
That's too bad, because until that point "Promised Land" was a more balanced look at the issues surrounding fracking than those in the industry had any reason to expect.