Short running time keeps ‘Promised Land’ from being a drag

By Christopher K. Conner

In “Promised Land”, Matt Damon portrays Steve Butler. Steve’s work involves convincing rural landowners to sell natural gas drilling rights on their property to Global Crosspower Solutions. With his partner Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand) he has closed a massive number of deals over the other teams, which attracts the attention of the corporate office and puts Steve in line for a promotion.

When asked about his success, he points out that he is from rural Iowa and what he is offering is a way to get out of the mythological farm town life. Once he lays it out for them, people rush to sign for less than the dollar target of the company. This insight leads to Steve’s promotion to VP of Land Management.

Steve and Sue’s next target is a town in western Pennsylvania. It should be an easy assignment, but unknown to them, one of the town’s teachers is a retired engineer. He raises questions about what fracking will do to the water and land around town. The teacher, Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook), manages to out maneuver Steve and gets the town leaders to call for a general vote on the issue in two weeks.

When the corporate office does the research and finds out about Frank’s credentials, they want to send in backup teams. Steve manages to convince the office that he has everything under control. Blindsided by the sudden challenge, Steve and Sue settle in to win as many contracts as possible hoping that doing so will make the vote meaningless.

Steve starts to notice a man around town that seems out of place. He repeatedly asks about an environmentalist presence in town, but there is none. Instead Dustin Nobile (John Krasinski) represents an unknown, very small outside environmental group. Dustin shares his story of losing his family dairy farm due to Global’s operations poisoning the land and killing off their cattle.

Later confronted by Steve and Sue in the parking lot of the town’s only hotel, John seems to accept a “donation” with the understanding he will leave town. Instead he uses the money to print up distinctive signs showing dead cattle and convinces many of the locals to allow him to put those signs up on their land. The tide seems to be turning against Global at the same time Steve is starting to see the charm in the rural life he had been so anxious to leave when he went off to college.

“Promised Land” paints an idyllic image of rural life to counter the down and out version that Steve recalls. In the background, even Frank admits that he needs the money offered by Global. It is hard to make a living from the land, but the land is the last thing most of these people have. Risking it for a few thousand dollars and the promise of a percentage of the profits is too much to ask.

At well under two hours, “Promised Land” manages to be missing a lot of punch. The love interests are underdeveloped, the conflict is soft and the villains aren’t terribly villainous. All together that makes for a relatively dull film.

What “Promised Land” does bring is characters that are likable despite their flaws an a willingness to present issues without resolving them to completion. The plot follows a predictable trajectory, but still manages to keep a few surprises in the end. There is also a good deal of the humorous banter to keep the film from feeling too long.

As a whole, I’m glad “Promised Land” was as short as it was. That fact alone probably saved the experience and kept it from boring me to sleep. Witty banter can only entertain me for so long, and “Promised Land” was just barely on this side of that line.

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