It’s hard to separate the winners from the losers in Promised Land, a modern morality tale about how quick riches can bump up against the need for security and stability. The main character, Steve Butler, assumes the default role of having lost a kingdom while saving his soul.
Matt Damon takes the lead — a juicy, conflicted part created by him and co-screenwriter and co-star John Krasinski, from a story by Dave Eggers. Gus Van Sant (Milk, Last Days) directed, continuing his impressive run of examining characters forced to choose between equally damning alternatives.
Eggers’ work creates a story from today’s headlines as the residents of a small, vaguely Midwestern town, McKinley, gradually learn they sit atop a large deposit of natural gas. Into the community, Butler and his partner Sue (Frances McDormand), both employees of a large firm, lightly land. They approach the landowners of an area populated with farms and homesteads large and small. To lease the properties, the two smooth-talkers engage the owners, offering generous sums of money along with general assurances of all-around safety.
But when the community meets in the high school gym to discuss the proposals, a retired scientist (Hal Holbrook) brings up the possible environmental damage that could be done by such exploration.
From that point, the town seems to split, a fissure made more pronounced when a visiting environmentalist, Dustin (Krasinski), arrives to add his own personal stories about losing the family farm to the monolithic company.
Once that divide has been established, Van Sant has little further to travel, so he fleshes out his narrative with a potential romance involving a local woman, Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt), who quickly becomes the two men’s obscure object of desire. The film builds to the town’s vote on potential investment, although, somewhat contradictorily, it looks like the individual owners already act on their own.
But before concluding with the false fireworks between forces, several unforeseen but believable twists round out the morality tale, when it looks like the right people will finally do the right thing.
Rated R, 107 minutes.
Opens Friday at the AMC Northpark in Dallas.