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'Promised Land': Fracking tale barely touches surface ★★

For a fellow who's just been promoted to vice president of land management by his multibillion-dollar natural gas company, the character played by Matt Damon in "Promised Land" is awfully wussy. He turns into a puddle whenever he's bested by the opposition: a likable environmental activist portrayed by John Krasinski. What's up? Mr. Corporate Slicko has never been trained in countering the other side's arguments?

More an argument than a fully fleshed-out drama, "Promised Land" starts with the notion that Damon's character, Steve, has begun to doubt his corporate mission. Filmed in western Pennsylvania, director Gus Van Sant's film takes on the issue of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, by which natural gas is extracted from miles beneath the surface using a combination of water, sand and controversial chemicals that, some studies show, isn't much good for topsoil. Or drinking water.

Because the word "fracking" has a way of crushing the average moviegoer's interest in any subject, let alone fracking, "Promised Land" has its work cut out for itself. It strives to humanize the conflict.

Along with a colleague (Frances McDormand), Steve arrives in the town of McKinley for what he thinks will be a quick two- or three-day sales pitch, convincing the locals to hand over drilling rights to as much of the land as possible.

Some of the locals, hobbled by the recession, can't wait to cash in. Steve's job is to offer as little money for that land as possible. Then the anti-fracking contingent, led by the local high school science teacher played by Hal Holbrook, lets its collective voice be heard. And the company folks have a fight on their hands.

Rosemarie DeWitt plays another teacher who lives alone in bucolic splendor, in her lovely old house with a shady front yard and goats. She finds herself interested in both Steve and his rival, though "Promised Land" is too high-minded to develop any serious sexual tension. (That's fracking for you: That word just doesn't make room for much else.)

This is Damon's third collaborative script for Van Sant, the first two being "Good Will Hunting" and "Gerry." The actors are first-rate, and DeWitt is becoming one of the brightest and most interesting American faces on screen, an actress who can keep an audience guessing (in the best way) as to what her character's thinking and feeling.

But the script is unconvincing; two key narrative twists, one related to the other, are deeply hokey. Van Sant, a smooth craftsman, never gives us a town on the ropes. You keep hearing how tough things are — and in towns like this one, they are — yet "Promised Land," from a story idea by Dave Eggers, is too concerned with shimmering rural vistas as photographed by cinematographer Linus Sandgren to give us much grit. A movie on this subject needs more than postcards from well-meaning writers and filmmakers just traveling through.

mjphillips@tribune.com

'Promised Land' -- 2 stars
MPAA rating:
R (for language)
Running time: 1:46
Opens: Friday

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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