Message movies are often more message than movie. So it's a shame not to be able to give a full recommendation to "Promised Land," about a natural gas executive (Matt Damon) whose latest attempt to lease a town's land for drilling encounters resistance. Mostly "Promised Land" is the rare social-consciousness film that doesn't come across as one-sided, preachy or self-righteous. And until its last third, it's a well-made, impressively acted story that modestly tries to unravel some of the knottier complications of the fossil-fuel industry, so reliant on destruction to build economies.
Damon plays Steve Butler, whose background as a farm boy makes him adept at convincing farmers to lease their land to his employer — the important-sounding Global Crosspower Solutions — often for half the usual rate. He's promoted to vice president while on his latest assignment, where we meet him, traveling through a Pennsylvania farming community with his partner, Sue (Frances McDormand). They hope to lease all the local land so Global can get at perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars of natural gas deposits below. The locals get a cut. Natural gas is a cleaner alternative to oil. So everyone wins. At least Steve thinks so.
Steve has an easy confidence, which shows as he quickly accumulates the first few leases in sales pitches over coffee. It's usually just that easy for him, so he's flustered when a science teacher (Hal Holbrook) stands up at a town meeting to explain that the gas extraction — through hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking — could be dangerous. Steve's company is even more alarmed when it finds out that the quaint science teacher is also a retired Boeing engineer with a doctorate from Cornell. Then a crusading environmentalist (John Krasinski) shows up, and makes even more trouble for Steve and the company.
There's been some controversy about the film's funding, which is unfortunate because "Promised Land" seems unusually fair about its subject. It's particularly smart to complicate its protagonist-antagonist relationship. Steve's executive character would be the bad guy in most movies of this sort, swooping in to fast-talk a bunch of small-town rubes out of their rights and property. But Steve doesn't seem half bad. Sure, he's getting the company a good deal, but when the locals unexpectedly balk, and Steve tells them they're making a mistake, it's difficult to say what decision we'd make in their shoes, or that Steve isn't right that a fairly good deal is better than no deal at all.
Equally compelling are the supporting characters, including Sue, who also doesn't come across as a villain. She's a single mom thankful to have a good job, which keeps her teenage son in baseball cleats and computers. Krasinski, often found in goofy comedies, is given the right balance as the environmentalist, Dustin. Initially booed by the earthy, Republican-leaning locals, he proves he's just as much one of them as Steve, maybe even more ingratiating, which confounds Steve to no end. The film even adds a local schoolteacher (Rosemarie DeWitt) to the tug of war between these rivals, without getting cute or turning mawkish.
Some people watching "Promised Land" might recall "Local Hero," a 1983 British comedy from Bill Forsythe about an oil executive who travels to Scotland to make everyone rich by turning their sleepy seaside resort into a booming oil refinery — until it's realized an old, nearly homeless coot owns the beach and thinks it should be protected. For a while "Promised Land" plays like the American heartland version, not quite as smart or funny, but with well-paced character development and convincing ambiguity facilitated by director Gus Van Sant. Paired again with writer Damon ("Good Will Hunting"), who co-wrote with Krasinski, he displays a light touch at least comparable to Forsythe's, working in nice moments of local color as Damon's character only gradually realizes he might not be doing as much good as he thinks.
All the more reason to feel disappointed that "Promised Land" doesn't live up to its name, stumbling badly in the end, when a surprise twist reveals one of the characters isn't who we thought. The surprise is intended to make Steve choose sides, and it's too bad the filmmakers think it's necessary. "Promised Land" begins by digging deeper than one might expect into the actual people involved in fossil-fuel exploitation, but it ends too easily to strike it rich. (R) 106 min. S