Dir. Gus Van Sant
(2012, R, 106 minutes)

I’ve noted in past reviews that there seem to be two kinds of Gus Van Sant film: the easily accessible kind in the vein of Good Will Hunting and Milk, and the darker, more inward kind like Paranoid Park and My Own Private Idaho. The latter variety doesn’t always appeal to me, but when he directs a more straightforward project, even when it’s good, it seems less personal, lacking his strong stylistic signature.

Promised Land is another such film, though Van Sant wasn’t its intended director, which may explain its more workmanlike approach. He came in at the last minute after co-writer and star Matt Damon had to step down from his helming duties. Damon plays Steve Butler, a salesman for an energy company who specializes in leasing land from poor rural communities at bargain-basement prices for the extraction of natural gas. He believes he’s successful because he also comes from a farming town and understands their prideful Midwestern mythos, though he also resents that stubborn of-the-land mindset.

John Krasinski, who co-wrote with Damon – Dave Eggers is credited with the story – plays Dustin, an environmentalist who tries to prevent the sale after his own family farm was destroyed by Steve’s company. The real subject here is fracking, the process by which natural gas is removed from the earth. It’s a subject better explored by the recent documentary GasLand; if you want to understand the grievous harm of fracking and the callous disregard of certain energy companies, that’s the movie to see.

But Promised Land is nevertheless valuable in how it explores, on a character level, how we form our identities. When Steve and his partner Sue (Frances McDormand) arrive in town, the first thing they do, in what looks like a well-practiced ritual, is buy clothes from a local outlet. It’s camouflage: a just-like-you disguise cynically intended to transform them from big-city outsiders to relatable small-town folk. Later, when they attempt to lease their first plot of land, Steve has a charming exchange with the child of the homeowners that seems authentic until he trots out the same routine with a different child later on.

This is the identity he has crafted for himself as a salesman, but he has another one he holds more deeply. As he is confronted by opponents of fracking he often repeats, as if to reassure himself, “I’m a good guy.” Though Steve disdains what he believes is the naïve self-image of farmers, his good-guy persona is no less so, and it may not fit him any better than the granola-hippie image he tries to attribute to Dustin. In his business, image is everything, and now he faces the fear that he may no longer understand his own.