Promised Land is a better movie than it seems. Or maybe it's a worse movie than it feels. It's difficult to say: for you see, what it is most of all is a very nice movie on a very old-fashioned model that purrs along like a well-oiled kitten until it gets to the end, and the end smashes the whole thing in the face with a hammer. I would like to say, "I cannot believe that nobody stepped in and tried to stop that ending", except that I can absolutely believe it, every inch of it. I bet everybody was madly excited about that ending, cheering each other on, absolutely dead certain that the ending was it, the part of the movie that opened everything else up and brought it all home. It has that kind of feel to it: the "ain't we clever" sort of twist ending that turns a very pleasant, small human drama into a big game of "gotcha!" and generally cheapens everything around it. But that is the world we live in, I guess; nobody knows how to do a nice, simple, spare issues drama any more without tarting it up

What this leaves us with, anyway, is about 85 minutes of good solid drama about life as it is lived in middle America, mixed with a message movie about the process of fracking, in which natural gas is removed from rock layers using techniques that wreak hell on the surrounding environment, and while it is clear that the filmmakers possess a very definite anti-fracking perspective, their film is neither a harangue not a polemic; and then about 18 minutes stomping all over everything that has been so good for so long, rendering the slow-burning character arc completely pointless, and trying to make a political thriller where none had any call to exist. So mathematically, a lot more of the movie is pretty good than otherwise, and that's the part worth focusing on, since when Promised Land works, it works in a manner that very few other movies these days even care to pretend exists: it is a film very much in the tradition of Norma Rae and Silkwood and those other sorts of movies that blend social awareness with well-observed working class character drama. Movies of a kind that would never cause anybody to say, "that's one of the best things I've ever seen", but would cause a great many people to say instead, "that was interesting, entertaining, and not unintelligent, and I am glad I watched it." Movies for smart but unadventurous adults, basically, a market segment perpetually under-served by the modern market, though the last quarter of 2012 has been unusually generous to them.

The film reunites director Gus Van Sant with Matt Damon for the first time since 2002's Gerry, though the much more appropriate touchstone is the 15-year-old Good Will Hunting, a movie of similarly low-key stakes and simplified aesthetics, with a script by Damon and John Krasinski, from a story by Dave Eggers (what on Earth Krasinski is doing writing movie now is anybody's guess). Here, Damon plays Steve Butler, something of an advance man for a massive natural gas company, whose specialty (as introduced in a distastefully overt "let's talk about something we all already know" opening scene) is to convince rural landowners to lease their natural resources rights to the company, something he does better than anybody else, since his own farming community background has led him to believe with his whole heart that this is a good thing for the small towns he visits. This particular trip into Pennsylvania finds him teamed with Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand), a considerably less earnest person, and it seems like it's going to be just another one of the many sales they've made together, until a high school science teacher with far too many degrees for comfort (Hal Holbrook) starts to raise awareness in the town of the possible downsides of fracking, and in no time at all, Steve and Sue are fighting with a cheery out-of-town activist, Dustin Noble (Krasinski) for the hearts and minds of the locals, something neither of them have ever been obliged to do. Also, Steve has a flirtation going with schoolteacher Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt), and as you can probably tell if you've seen a movie ever, the pretty local girl serves as an important figure in Steve's gradual discovery that, maybe, what he's doing isn't all sunshine and roses and big paydays for the people around him.

Eye-opening surprises are in short supply here, as is much in the way of high-concept style (in fact, the one time Van Sant tries to do something interesting, with sped-up footage, it goes terribly wrong). Promised Land trades in doing things effectively rather than creatively, and while we can bemoan that or not - personally, I'm never exactly thrilled when a director whose challenging films are as gripping as Van Sant's decides to spend his time this far in the mainstream - there's little point in denying that, standard-issue filmmaking or not, at least this movie works, and pretty damn well at that. It's unabashedly middlebrow, but not all middlebrow movies are remotely this sensible and engaging, and that's what happens when talented people work beneath their skill level: the results are still awfully well-done. And in a season unusually well-stocked with smart movies for grown-ups, Promised Land manages to be one of the most easily watchable, not straining for importance and not overstaying its welcome. There's not a bum performance in the cast, and the sense of laconic, everyday life that bubbles up from the lack of fuss in the acting or directing makes the film one of the best depictions of the rhythm of life in Flyover Country that I've seen in many a long month.

It's just good, satisfying cinema, is all, nothing that sticks or wins awards, but something you don't feel the least bit guilty in recommending for a pleasant night out. A damn pity about that ending, though! It casts a shadow over the entire film, making it seem more shrill and manipulative than is the case for almost the whole thing. I'm not sure that it's sufficient to outright ruin the whole picture, but it does leave a sour taste, and though the movie is a fine thing, it's palpably obvious how much better it could have been.