"Promised Land" sees a natural-gas company rep named Steve, played by writer/producer Matt Damon, visit a small northeastern town with the aim of buying leases from landowners. This routine trip goes sideways when the townsfolk, spurred first by a kindly science teacher (Hal Holbrook) and then reinforced by a cocky environmental activist (John Krasinski, sharing a screenwriting credit) decry the dangers of drilling. Steve's offering the promise of money: a few thousand per acre for the rights, plus a cut of later revenue. The detractors point to risk: evidence of poisoned streams, fields and drinking water. The townsfolk propose a vote on whether to allow the gas company to come and drill, leaving a few weeks for this debate to unfold.
Now, as "Promised Land" is decidedly a Message Movie, and painfully self-aware of that fact, it does its best not to clonk you over the head with the argument that gas exploration is bad. It nearly succeeds in making a movie for adults. But it falters, no more baldly than in a scene midway through, as Krasinski's do-gooder shows school kids what happened to his family's dairy farm after gas drilling. He pours some household chemicals, meant to represent the hodgepodge of hydro-fracking agents that get pumped into underground rock to release trapped natural gas, into a plastic bag pregnant with water and sand. Then he lets the witches' brew leak onto a toy farm set, and lights it aflame. The point is that fracking might be dangerous, you see? Did you catch that? Or does the nice man at the front of the room need to set more toys on fire?
To the credit of Damon and director Gus Van Sant, "Promised Land" avoids polemic by offering a pretty solid pro-drilling case. Steve hails from rural Iowa, where the shuttering of a Caterpillar plant meant economic death. A town with tens of millions of dollars' worth of fossil fuels beneath its feet could, he argues, provide for itself in ways otherwise unthinkable. He posits the following: subsistence agriculture is an untenable grind, American manufacturing is a shell, we all consume fossil fuels, Americans don't want to have a conversation about cutting their consumption, and it's better to burn a domestic energy source than to rely on foreign oil or to burn ever more coal. It's hard to argue strongly against any of those points, even for anyone who tends toward the "Gasland" view of things. (By the way, go see "Gasland.")
But ultimately there's much to appreciate in "Promised Land" for anyone who doesn't particularly care for fracking or the way energy companies do business. For one, the film probably uses the word "fracking" more than any previous Hollywood feature, a step toward a wider and, yes, adult conversation. Steve's increasing reluctance to make his pitch mirrors America's own ambivalence to the toxic downside of domestic energy development. People somewhere are always going to be willing to let corporations pillage their land so long as the rest of us like to drive cars and keep our lights on late and watch flatscreen TVs and buy plastics and eat beef fed by grains grown with oil-based fertilizers and keep central air running in the summer. That doesn't mean we have to accept it without acknowledging the consequences.
If we don't want to foul our own nest, we have to use less. Until the day when we want to have that discussion, to really have it, you can get the gist of "Promised Land" in much less time by recalling the allegedly Native American quote that Greenpeace likes to deploy: "When the last tree has been cut down, the last fish caught, the last river poisoned, only then will we realize that one cannot eat money."