Review: Matt Damon delivers in timely 'Promised Land'

Rosemarie DeWitt, left, and Matt Damon star in "Promised Land."

Photo by Scott Green, © Focus Features

Rosemarie DeWitt, left, and Matt Damon star in "Promised Land."

Steve Butler, an ace corporate salesman, is sent along with his partner, Sue Thomason, to close a key rural town in his company's expansion plans. ...

Rating: R for language

Length: 106 minutes

Released: December 28, 2012 Limited

Cast: Matt Damon, John Krasinski, Frances McDormand, Rosemarie DeWitt, Lucas Black

Director: Gus Van Sant

Writer: Matt Damon, John Krasinski, Dave Eggers

More info and showtimes »

To be blunt, the "amber waves of grain" touted in "America the Beautiful" have represented a lie for about 90 years, ever since the U.S. government started handing out farm subsidies. Long-celebrated iconic images of red barns and symmetrical fields are as much a fairy tale as any Hans Christian Andersen story.

Small farms have been struggling to survive for decades, and small towns are gasping for breath, even though many people still fondly imagine them to be the backbone of America. That's what makes "Promised Land" so accessible, even though it deals with a subject — fracking — that may not seem immediately cinematic.

There's a certain David vs. Goliath aspect to "Promised Land," but mostly it comes across as a balanced, un-histrionic look at the fracking debate. Yes, the money that natural-gas companies pay landowners for the rights to drill into their property to reach pockets of gas is desperately needed income. And yes, there are huge questions about the possible health hazards that the practice poses.

"Promised Land," which reunites director Gus Van Sant with "Good Will Hunting" star Matt Damon, opens the conversation in a reasoned way. Adapted by Damon and co-star John Krasinski from a story by Dave Eggers, the plot follows Steve Butler (Damon), a clean-cut closer for a gas company whose results are the best around.

Steve credits his success to his roots: He grew up in a small town in Iowa that bit the dust when the local factory closed. He knows the fine line between owning property and foreclosure.

Steve and colleague Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand), who's as down to earth and honest-seeming as he is, descend upon their company's latest target and quickly ingratiate themselves with the locals. They're having no trouble getting folks on their gravy train until a local science teacher, Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook), starts nudging his neighbors to seek more information about the impact of fracking.

Soon afterward, Dustin Noble (Krasinski), a representative from a small environmental group, shows up and begins sharing horror stories about what has happened to other areas where fracking has taken place. Steve finds himself in an unusual position — playing catch-up — even while his faith in the company line starts to shake.

There's no doubt who's the bad guy here, especially after the film's deliciously timed twist, but that's a movie given. Big business always spells greed, and to take issue with Gordon Gekko's mantra, greed is not good.

Where "Promised Land" shines a light is in personal responsibility. How far can you go and still be able to live with yourself? The answer is different for everyone, but should it be? Van Sant addresses the questions without a whiff of sanctimony — and, more important, without being dull.

Damon is at his best as the All-American Everyman — ambitious but honest, manipulative but with a base of integrity. It's a pleasure to watch him at work.

The supporting cast also rises to the occasion — from McDormand, Krasinski and Holbrook to Rosemarie DeWitt, Titus Welliver, Terry Kinney and Tim Guinee. All are well placed in this tale of values.

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