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Predictability compromises otherwise engaging 'Promised Land'

| Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013, 9:01 p.m.

“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 the 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 might 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. Back when they filmed “Other People's Money,” the idea was to surprise the audience by making both the populist side and the Big Business side of an argument compelling, rational and reasonable. Not here.

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 Damon to play. Steve is blindsided by the old science teacher, humiliated and silenced in a way no sharp salesman would be. He's been working in this business for years and never let himself see the consequences of his actions?

Krasinski and Damon make well-matched romantic and moral rivals. McDormand's Sue is the flinty, no-nonsense sell-out who refuses to learn what Steve is finding out. DeWitt's performance is limited to flashing her pretty smile and biting her lip as she flirts. Director Gus Van Sant captures bucolic nature, lands the jokes and does well by the many friendly and unfriendly bar scenes.

But an evenly matched fight makes for more convincing conflict and better drama. And we needed to see a lot more conflict within Damon's character. You can't play “dumb” and “morally compromised” when you can't say “I'm a good guy” like you don't quite believe it.

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