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Article updated: 12/27/2012 7:39 AM

'Promised Land' a cynical tale of sales and sellouts

By Dann Gire

Gus Van Sant's restrained examination of personal ethics, shady business practices, energy exploitation and community desperation takes the opposite approach from formula corporate whistle-blower dramas such as "Erin Brockovich," "The Insider" and "Silkwood."

In "Promised Land," the bad guy becomes the good guy. Sort of.

Steve Butler, played by co-writer Matt Damon, works as a spokesman for the Global gas company. His job, and he's very good at it, entails going into financially depressed communities and persuading their leaders to let his company access all the natural gas deep underground.

Butler himself came from a small agrarian hometown, a fact that he wields as a weapon to get residents to see the wisdom of what he's selling. His ability to relate to the common person -- as well as his promises of instant wealth -- has given him an almost flawless track record for success.

When Butler and his veteran partner Sue (Frances McDormand) blow into a struggling Pennsylvania town ripe with gas reserves, the two think it will be easy in, easy out.

They don't count on two things.

First, a local high school teacher and retired energy expert named Frank Yates (the durable Hal Holbrook) knows that the process Global uses to recover gas, called "fracking," can possibly poison water supplies and kill livestock.

Butler isn't too concerned. He's dealt with educated opposition before, just as he's dealt with greedy mayors who want payoffs for their cooperation. Butler buys this one for a mere $30,000.

But the second thing he doesn't see coming.

An environmental activist, appropriately named Justin Noble (co-writer John Krasinski), moves into town and starts whipping up major opposition to fracking, Global and its two hired guns.

Suddenly, Butler's record falls into jeopardy and his scowling bosses don't want to hear excuses for delays.

"Promised Land" reunites Van Sant with his Oscar-winning actor/writer Damon from "Good Will Hunting," a far more accessible, emotionally rewarding and less cynical story than the one here.

Damon can emanate a solid everyman appeal when he needs to, and he gives Butler as many regular guy qualities as he needs to connect with us, the audience.

But Butler is a conflicted man torn between his corporate allegiance and his moral farmland upbringing.

He spends lot of screen time hashing this out with himself as his less-conflicted partner goes looking for distraction at the local watering hole.

Quickly, "Promised Land" evolves into a personal clash between Butler and his environmental nemesis, who seems to be better at his job than Butler is at his.

The movie includes a disappointingly conventional romantic triangle in which rivals Butler and Noble grudge-date a local schoolteacher, a character so vague that not even Rosemarie DeWitt can bump it up from banal.

Danny Elfman's evocative score infuses this drama with an appropriately "Our Town"-ish charm, a nice complement to the array of telling images of small-town America on the brink of financial despair.

(Utilizing actual non-actor residents of Avonsmore, Pa., contributes greatly to Van Sant's realistic atmosphere.)

For the record, some critics have called foul over "Promised Land" because it has received funds from Image Nation Abu Dhabi of the United Arab Emirates, the third largest oil exporter. The criticism apparently stems from the supposition that Image Nation backed this movie as a way to thwart gas production, its energy rival.

"Promised Land" isn't about oil vs. gas, or gas vs. something else.

It's about a terrible time in America where small communities hammered by a bad economy have to juggle benefits vs. drawbacks of letting a corporation come to their rescue -- with strings attached.

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