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Originally published December 27, 2012 at 3:01 PM | Page modified December 30, 2012 at 8:24 AM

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‘Promised Land’: haunting tale set in Anytown, U.S.A.

“Promised Land,” directed by Gus Van Sant and starring Matt Damon and John Krasinksi, tells the predictable but pleasant story of a smooth-talking salesman and an environmental activist duking it out over natural-gas rights in a small farmland town. It’s playing at the Meridian an

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie Review 3.5 stars

“Promised Land,” with Matt Damon, John Krasinski, Frances McDormand, Rosemarie DeWitt, Scoot McNairy, Titus Welliver, Hal Holbrook. Directed by Gus Van Sant, from a screenplay by Damon and Krasinski, based on a story by Dave Eggers. 110 minutes. Rated R for language. Meridian, Lincoln Square.

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So, if Matt Damon were trying to sell you something, and John Krasinski were trying to talk you out of it, what would you do? “Promised Land,” directed by Gus Van Sant, presents that dilemma to the residents of a small farmland town. Damon is Steve Butler, a smooth-talking salesman for a vast corporation, who arrives in McKinley (we’re never told what state; it’s a green-hills Anytown, U.S.A.) with his partner Sue (Frances McDormand) in the hopes of convincing residents to lease drilling rights for their land to his natural-gas company. “You’ll be a millionaire,” he tells a local, whose face almost crumbles in wonder; what he doesn’t say is how many more millions his own company will take, or what the cost might be to the land. Enter the nicely named Dustin Noble (Krasinski), an environmental activist from somewhere unspecified, who shows up in his pickup truck like a cowboy at high noon, determined to convince the townspeople that signing the leases would be a terrible mistake.

While there’s little doubt about where “Promised Land” is going (you don’t think a Gus Van Sant movie is going to side with a corporation, do you?), it’s a pleasure to watch it go there. The faceoff of Damon and Krasinski (who also wrote the screenplay together) is masterful: two of the most likable actors around, each capable of selling mittens to a snake. McDormand, as always, creates an entire world around her character; a single mom long ago reconciled to the ethical complications of her work. Rosemarie DeWitt brings her charming, smiling slipperiness (you never quite know where her voice is going) to the role of a local teacher, and Hal Holbrook classes things up, as if “Promised Land” needed it, as a longtime resident who questions the get-rich-quick scheme. Van Sant adds trancelike music, haunting shots of wet green, a town that seems like everywhere and nowhere — a place where everyone has an agenda, and, though some seem hidden, a dream.

Moira Macdonald: mmacdonald@seattletimes.com or 206-464-2725.

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