Slick salesman Steve Butler (Damon) arrives in a rural town to snap up farmland so his employers, Global Crosspower Solutions, can siphon out the natural gas via hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’. Resistance from an old-timer (Holbrook), a spunky environmentalist (Krasinski) and an attractive local teacher (DeWitt) will lead him to question his motives.
For its first half, if not more, the story walks an intriguing ethical line between two wrongs: the pillage of the land by energy companies and the pillage of the people by recession. But in daring uneven moral ground — surely the point — the film loses its courage and takes the (Doc) Hollywood road. Oh, the irresistible lure of those country bumpkins.
Damon’s Butler, armoured in a smile, knows his terrain: he still wears his grandfather’s working boots, signalling he grew up in just such a farming community as this Pennsylvania backwater. He’s got a store of old resentments to be tapped like natural gas. He knows what ruin is like, and that money offers a chance. For all their salesmanship, Global Crosspower Solutions’ Butler and his partner, Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand), are preaching a form of salvation to these destitute farmers. They halfway believe in their message (the film ponders how jobs shape our identity). Would you sacrifice the land, if it meant sending your kids to college? Righteousness is for those who can afford it. For a moment, our expectations are confounded — maybe they have a point. After all, you can’t help but root for Damon.
Standing in Global’s way are two opposing forces. Wizened elder Hal Holbrook, face like a rucksack, croons that the cost may be greater than the price, but his lamentations struggle to sound more than rote despair. Better is Krasinski, with a fine line in smug grins and bad shorts as environmentalist Dustin Noble. He would rather needle his pent-up foe, and Van Sant has them strutting about car parks like bantam roosters. If the metaphor is clumsy, the infectiously natural Rosemarie DeWitt, as the town’s ‘undecided’ singleton, offers real sweetness.
If all of this suggests Local Hero, it lacks the mysticism hovering over that film like a mist — a sense of something to be valued beyond human dilemmas. Here there is a strict determination to encompass the sullen temperature of American economics, with familiar scenes of forlorn land-folk elbow-deep in tractor parts, dejected families mystified by paperwork, and heated town gatherings in high-school gyms.
For a good distance, the film juggles both corn-pone daydream and misery porn. Between its muddy moral games, Van Sant keeps things airy and crisply comic. Obvious plot points take amusingly unforeseen turns. The script has a fine ear for the offhand banter of working people, the wry shorthand of bar talk. Gradually, Van Sant and his writers become more and more enamoured with their small-town realism and Butler’s overdue enlightenment, and what once was provocative succumbs to the endearing.
The best advice, in this and most of life, is to cling to the pleasure of Frances McDormand’s company. That graceful worldliness she grants all she does. For Thomason this is a job, a means to look after her own family. Necessity, she suggests, is a personal choice.
Another charming take on a familiar scenario: Northern Exposure with Jason Bourne. Which is a backhanded way of saying this is far from the challenging movie it promised to be.
Reviewed by Ian Nathan