Salesmen are typically depicted in screen drama as the quintessential American phonies. The exceptions — in Barry Levinson's Avalon or Whit Stillman's Barcelona — are buried under a mountain of films proving the rule. That one set of phonies are being dramatically indicted by actors is an irony that we will leave hanging.
When we first meet Promised Land's phony, played by Matt Damon, he's preparing to sell himself, to audition. Steve Butler is interviewing for an executive position at Global, a natural gas company whose bread and butter is fracking, the controversial practice of pumping toxic chemicals 8,000 feet underground to loosen up natural gas. Steve travels from small town to small town and persuades people to sell Global leases to extract on their land, and his ace results have attracted attention. He explains that this is a matter of his common touch with locals: "I'm from Eldridge, Iowa. It might as well be Rifle, Colorado; Dish, Texas; or Lafayette, Louisiana. I know them, they know me."
Steve says his work is inspired by a sense of duty to these dying mill towns — "I'm selling them the only way they have to get back" — though an edge in his voice belies a deeper frustration and disappointment. Whether that frustration is with these people he claims to know or actually with himself is tested on a by-the-book sales trip to a town called McKinley in western Pennsylvania. His partner, Sue, meets him there with a suitably beat-up Ford, their prop transportation; Sue is played by Frances McDormand, keeping up her end of a testy on-the-job rapport that's a low-key pleasure. When they go shopping for middle-American costumes, Steve chooses plaid over camouflage, though, really, it's all camouflage.
Steve's approach assumes that all of flyover America is essentially the same. "I can't believe this is right outside the city; it looks like Kentucky," says Sue, to which Steve responds, "Two hours outside any city looks like Kentucky." And everything is routine at first — the bribe to the local politician (a nicely played scene performed with hushed, hardball contempt by Damon) and the well-oiled pitches to property owners. But a science teacher (Hal Holbrook) speaks up at a community assembly, citing reports that fracking can contaminate water supplies, which leads the assembly to set a date three weeks off to vote on allowing Global to drill. This forces Steve and Sue to stick around McKinley and gives time for an environmental-agency worker (John Krasinski) to go door to door with a story about how fracking killed his family dairy farm.
Krasinski, shading his trademark affability with a touch of cocky righteousness, has the unlikely handle Dustin Noble, the actor's second most unfortunate character name outside of Burt Farlander in 2009's Away We Go, written by Dave Eggers. Eggers is credited with Promised Land's original story, which Damon and Krasinski developed into a screenplay; Damon was originally slated to make the project his directorial debut, but it instead wound up with Good Will Hunting director Gus Van Sant, who here is again in his deft, accessible, director-for-hire mode. Like Steve, Van Sant — who has a history in advertising — knows how to dress down and display the common touch.
With Swedish cinematographer Linus Sandgren, Van Sant has shot McKinley as an NPR-tithing audience's dream of the idyllic small town seen in folksy music-video interludes, without an eyesore Walmart in sight. In fact, it offers little sense of the hard-times desperation that Steve's pitch assumes — strange considering this film is the work of the director of Drugstore Cowboy, who has made a career of going down among the marginalized.
The PR war is waged through Steve and Dustin's competition over a local schoolteacher (Rosemarie DeWitt) and in McKinley's social centers: the diner, where Dustin gets tauntingly back-slappy with the locals, and the bar, where Sue takes the stage to sing Hank Williams' gospel standard "I Saw the Light" to win hearts and minds. Hank Jr.'s "Family Tradition" is the true surefire crowd-pleaser, but her selection is significant; should it be doubted that environmentalism has adopted the trappings and language of religion, note that Promised Land (title courtesy Genesis 15:18-21) is essentially a conversion story, in which the cynical Steve is swayed from Global doctrine to the "delusional self-mythology" of prideful small-town independence he's first heard scoffing at.
But though Steve knows the Global line backward and forward ("If you are against this, you're for coal and oil. Period."), his conviction seems to be wavering even as he delivers it. Steve's conversion lacks dramatic heft, then, for it seems more a matter of predestination, his profound discomfort something incipient to his existence rather than the result of a slow undermining of confidence. New flecks of gray show at Damon's temples, and foreboding of a looming existential cliff shows at once in Steve's clumping gait, the sullen way he drinks, the ease with which Dustin gets under his skin. (Did Damon think of guiltily counting his Bourne bucks?)
Promised Land is a hard-sell movie because it doesn't have the confidence in its audience to make any other outcome seem personally viable, to give the opposition a fighting chance or persuasive voice. Fast Food Nation gave Bruce Willis' corporate higher-up the floor to deliver a tough, pragmatic monologue ending in "We all gotta eat a little shit from time to time" — a rogue element that gave an ideologically committed movie greater strength through tension. Ultimately, what causes the scales to fall from Steve's eyes is his discovery that Global has been playing with a stacked deck, making sure they can't lose. Here, Promised Land, whose ending never once seems in doubt, exemplifies in dramatic structure the same cheating its hero can't stomach.