Gus Van Sant’s Promised Land tells the story of two good-hearted salespeople who land on a small town in rural Pennsylvania with a transformative pitch: sell your natural gas rights to their company and give your small town new hope for the future. At first, everything goes smoothly. Steve (Matt Damon) and Sue (Frances McDormand) are experts at ingratiating themselves to the local folk, so much so that if this gig goes well, Steve is up for a huge and lucrative promotion. But for Steve it is about more than thrill of closing a deal. From small town Iowa, he watched his own home fall to waste as a result of the shifting nature of rural American economics. He’s not only selling a future for small town American; he believes his own pitch.
Trouble starts at a community meeting at the local high school when a science teacher raises questions about the environmental impact of fracking. Pressure mounts when an environmentalist turns up, lobbying the local folk to reject the big bad gas company. It sends Steve into crisis mode, professionally and personally, as he engages in a battle of charm with the smooth-talking and affable environmentalist, Dustin (played by Damon’s co-writer John Krasinski). Things are complicated further by Damon’s deepening affections for local girl
Despite the movie’s grappling with its controversial environmental subject, what makes Van Sant’s film radiate with the director’s characteristic warm sense of humanity is its mix of well-realized personalities. Promised Land isn’t necessarily an environmental film, instead it is about a struggle to realize and retain one’s own sense of personally integrity. And like a small town, the movie is sweet and wholesome, full of real feeling, but always mannered – a wistful elegy to the values Americans esteem in in small town life: sincerity, honesty, and a love fueled by hard-fought determination.