There are parts of this movie that are hard to like. The main character, Steve Butler, played by Matt Damon, is kind of the 21st century version of a 20th-century door-to-door salesman. He itinerates into small towns and charms the local residents into allowing fracking on their land. He plays on their greed, hinting at possibilities of money pouring in, but downplays any suggestion of environmental damage. Butler assures these country folk that his company is friendly to the land, and will replant trees and restore the earth after they extract the oil from beneath them.
To these hardscrabble dairy and corn farmers, it all sounds too good to be true. But Steve Butler is a winsome guy who is hard not to like. He flirts with the ladies at the bar. He chats with the old men at the coffee shop. He’s always courteous and respectful, and he possesses one of those honest, open faces that people just want to trust.
Of course everything is not quite what it seems. His silent sidekick, played by Frances MacDormand, engages in joking repartee with him in private, but it turns out that she is really more the “company man” than he is. Dustin Noble, played by John Krasinski, appears to be an independent environmentalist, and he counters Butler’s smooth-talking blandishments with sobering pictures of dead cows and spoiled crops and contaminated water. When Butler uses his company’s resources to prove that the photographs are actually not from a neighboring state at all, but were doctored and misrepresented, well, that just cements the deal. Which is exactly what it was supposed to do. And slowly our flimflam man begins to realize that he is being played here, as well.
Unfortunately, his romance with the cute little local girl is something less than convincing. So is his repentance, in a literal sense, his decision to turn his life around and forsake his old ways. Somehow the moviemakers fail to develop these themes as convincingly as they might have.
But despite the flawed character development, the premise of this movie strikes a resonant chord in a lot of locales: the balance between industrial development and ecological preservation. That’s something that affects us all, and will become increasingly important to our children and grandchildren.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Minister, St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Irving, Texas