What will it take for poor farmers to willingly scorch the earth beneath their feet?
That's the central question underlying Promised Land ( * * * out of four; rated PG-13; opening Friday nationwide), which pits the decreasing value of acreage against the valuable gases housed beneath.
No anti-corporate screed, this gentle tale is modest in its ambitions, with a cast of sympathetic characters and an unpredictable arc. That blend of elements is the key to its appeal, undermined by a rather pat final resolution.
Director Gus Van Sant explores greed in this story of a rural Pennsylvania community in which Steve (Matt Damon), a salesman for Global, an aptly named $9-billion-a-year company, arrives to persuade locals - most of them struggling farmers - to sell drilling rights on their property to extract natural gas. The process is called fracking, and what Steve is selling is not simple, despite his earnest claims.
Nothing is clear-cut, except for the inherent decency of ordinary people as envisioned by screenwriter Damon and co-star John Krasinski from a story by Dave Eggers.
Damon's performance as corporate salesman Steve Butler is one of his best. Initially a true believer in the cause, Steve, informed by his own rural roots, sees his conviction falter over time. Damon is low-key and well-meaning as his character becomes increasingly conflicted.
Early on Steve establishes his familiarity with small-town America, as well as his compassion: "I grew up in a large farming community: football Fridays, tractor pulls, cow tipping, all of it. We had a Caterpillar plant down in Davenport that closed down in my junior year. ... By the time my senior prom came around, I saw how little we had left to stand on. The whole farming town fantasy just shattered. Without the plant, we had nothing. I'm not selling them natural gas. I'm selling them the only way they have to get back."
Steve pulls into this financially strapped town with co-worker Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand). Their expectation is that the local residents will embrace an infusion of cash in exchange for drilling rights. Never mind the controversy over water contamination and potential toxins. Blessed with winning smiles and easy charm, Damon and McDormand probably were selected for their "just folks" affability.
No slick greedmeister, Steve is clearly well-intentioned. He befriends townsfolk and believes he's helping with modest cash windfalls that accompany signing on the dotted line.
But the citizenry is understandably wary. They decide to put the question to a vote.
McDormand brings an earthy humanity to her part. She sees things in black-and-white, influenced by her need as a single mom to support her child. "This is a job, and then I go home, " she reminds Steve.
McDormand delivers the straightforward Sue's snappy lines with aplomb, but her character lacks dimension. Why cast someone as multifaceted and talented as McDormand and saddle her with an underdeveloped role?
John Krasinski plays Dustin Noble, an environmentalist who ostensibly comes to start up a grass-roots campaign against the project. Krasinski is engaging as a bleeding heart who's more complex than he appears. Kudos to him and Damon for leading the story into unexpected turns.
Meanwhile, Steve strikes sparks with Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt), a friendly schoolteacher to whom both he and Dustin are drawn.
Fracking resistance is furthered by wise Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook), a respected elderly high school science teacher.
"Sure, it's a clean and efficient resource," Holbrook says in a heartfelt performance. "But the way they go about getting it is some dirty business."
Promised Land is an involving and timely tale that explores the changing nature and complex challenges of rural life.