Traveling salespeople swoop into small, dying towns and buy up the rights to drill for natural gas. They promise money and leave behind landscapes ruined by a technique known as fracking, which contaminates groundwater and makes residents sick. They feed on poverty and desperation, so they must be villains, right?
Here's the thing: Some of these salespeople, such as Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand) and Steve Butler (Matt Damon), are nice, friendly folks. A devoted mom and a former farm boy who empathizes with small-town people, these two are not villains. This movie appears to be something unexpected: a profound tale about the death throes of a small town, not another melodrama about Hollywood's cause du jour. But nothing is quite what it seems.
This isn't to say that Promised Land - beautifully written by Damon and actor John Krasinski (The Office) and based on a story by Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) - is full of overt surprises. Instead, the story sneaks up on you with its simple, effortless narrative. You slowly discover that Steve is more conniving than the gosh-darn farm boy he appears to be and more naive than he probably has any right to be. Then you see how this still fails to make him a villain. He and Sue are good people who contribute to great evil simply by following orders.
This idea becomes clear when Steve and Sue plan to throw an old-fashioned fair to counter the influence of Dustin Noble (Krasinski), an environmental activist who's also trying to sway the town. The fair is a stinging parody of a way of life that is dying even without fracking. Sue and Steve are eminently likeable, as are the funny, charming Dustin and all the townspeople they're manipulating. But eventually you'll figure out that everything people are doing and saying, whether they're for or against fracking, is part of a larger charade none of them seem to see.
Director Gus Van Sant has given us a film that could be the one future generations watch for a portrait of the moment just before the western world finally got the hint that the lives of ease and comfort they'd been enjoying for the past 75 years were about to end. There's a sense of doom and despair looming over Promised Land, beyond the view of its characters, but you, the outsider, can just about grasp it, if you peer into the distance. It's an extremely disconcerting feeling.