Steve Butler (Matt Damon) splashes water onto his face. A bathroom attendant hands him a towel and Steve dries himself off before exiting into an upscale restaurant. At his table sits David Churchill (Terry Kinney), a key player at their company, Global Crosspower Solutions. David apologizes because their CEO, Michael, hasn’t arrived on time as he is customarily early so as to greet anyone who is being considered for an executive position. David explains that Steve was the only candidate that was submitted from “out West” and Steve smiles thanks him it’s a nice gesture. But David makes it clear that Global is a 9 billion dollar company: it wasn’t nice - it was numbers that got Steve to the table.
David goes over Steve’s track record and asks how Steve manages to close more towns that most of the other teams. Steve explains that he was from a large farming community so he knows the kinds of people he’ll encounter there. Steve rants that there was a plant in his old town that got closed down his junior year of high school by the time prom came around he saw how bad the community was suffering, and the whole myth shattered: he doesn’t sell towns natural gas he sells them a way to sustain themselves. David is impressed, and Michael arrives soon after.
A bus pulls in through an idyllic small town. Steve watches rolling fields pass by through the window. Elsewhere, Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook) begins his morning routine with a smile grabbing a cup of coffee from his wife and driving his truck into town. As he drives past a Motel, we see Steve walk into the Motel lot where he is greeted by his sales partner, Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand). They get in the rental and drive to a local shop that specializes in “Guitars, Groceries, Gas and Guns.”
Inside the store, the pair begin going through clothes on racks hoping to make themselves look more like the locals. Sue asks about whether Steve got the job, but he won’t know until later. Sue takes her purchases closer to the front and laughs at the guitar, which catches the attention of the proprietor, Rob (Titus Welliver). He immediately realizes who Sue is by her Global ID card saying it’s about time the Natural Gas people showed up since they can hardly sell the scenery. He rings up their purchases and Steve starts to make a comment about how great Sue is at making friends, but she tells him to shut it.
The pair drives through the town and observe. They pull up to a local farmhouse and Steve sees a little girl playing the yard and jokingly says she’s doing all the work. He meets with the girl’s father and explains who he represents and what they do. Sue goes and pitches another family down the road and separately they explain that their natural gas company wants to lease their land because the shale quality beneath the town is supposed to be top tier. If Global were to drill beneath the land, then each of the people leasing land would look to make millions of dollars ensuring their children’s futures.
At the end of the day, Sue comments that it was a good day and that she’s surprised it wasn’t harder. David gets a text: He’s got the VP of Land Management position within the company. Sue skypes with her son before bed while Steve goes straight to bed.
The next morning, Steve meets with one of the town supervisors at a diner. The supervisor, Gerry, quizzes Steve, and it soon becomes apparent that Gerry wants a bribe aware of the potential cash cow the town is sitting on. He cites figures and dangerous examples of what had happened in other towns people getting sick from the unsafe process of fracking the shale to get natural gas. Steve throws him out a low offer of 40K and Gerry prepares to walk but Steve makes it clear that it’s a one-time offer. He says the company allows him to make an offer of up to .01% of what the company could potentially make and insists that, at best, the town is sitting on $30 million dollars. Gerry reluctantly agrees to the figure.
Steve goes drinking in a local bar that night. He orders another drink and bartender snarkily comments on his drinking pointing out that he and Alice (Rosemary DeWitt), a young school teacher, are killing the bottle between themselves. Steve and Alice playfully flirt with one another, and she asks about where he’s from he tells her that he’s from a small town like her town called Eldridge, Iowa. Alice’s friends call over to her, and he tells her that it was nice to meet her. She asks how long he’ll be in town, and he tells her that he’ll be there for a bit. She challenges him to a game of Absolut Madness Steve vs. the Bartender: each drink 4 shots in 4 minutes and the person who gets closer to the bull’s eye on the dart board wins. Steve ups the ante he will do 8 shots in 8 minutes, and if he wins, he will buy everyone’s drinks in the bar. They start and…
Steve wakes up on a sofa in a cozy house Alice’s house. She laughs that he’s still kinda-handsome in the morning and points out that he’s late: his phone has been buzzing nonstop for the last half hour. He tells her that he had a really nice time, and she responds that nothing happened though he did kiss her before he started throwing up. He asks her for her number, but she responds that it’s a small town he’ll see her again. He wishes her a happy birthday and leaves house…followed by two small goats. He jogs back to the Motel.
Sue is on her phone with Danny, her son, and learns that her neglectful ex-husband asked the boy to do some ironing which resulted in him getting burned. Her anger subsides when she learns that he will be the starting pitcher for his next baseball game. Steve jogs up and knocks on her window asking for a few minutes to get ready.
At the McKinley town hall meeting, Gerry gives his presentation and voices his support for Global while Steve and Sue sit off to the side. Frank Yates stands up and asks questions before making it clear that the process is not as simple or clean as Gerry would have the town believe. Steve stands up and has a dialogue with Frank, and there’s a back and forth where Frank accuses Steve of being a man who doesn’t have the answers so they can deny any potential risks. At the end of his speech, Frank makes it clear that the town is against Global buying them out and ruining their land and points out that the nearby university’s geology department estimated that McKinley is sitting on top of a $150 million dollar deposit of natural gas. This surprises and upsets Gerry, who realizes Steve tried to pull one over on him, and supports Frank’s suggestion that the town put it to a vote in a few weeks.
Sue is pissed that the town meeting didn’t go well it’s a job, and she just wants to go home to be with her son. The plan’s the same nothing has changed. They just need to go door to door, lease it all and close everyone. They return to the Motel and skype with David who is outraged that they let the townsfolk agree to a vote on the matter. Steve tells David that Frank Yates is just a science teacher but David says they looked into the man M.A. in Engineering from M.I.T, former head of Research and Development at Boeing the man teaches for fun but knows enough to sway the town with his credentials. David wants to pull them from the field, but Steve insists he can close it. David makes it clear that this town is all or nothing.
Steve gets a coffee from the local diner when a truck branded ATHENA drives by. The driver, Dustin Noble (John Krasinski) tips his hat to Steve as he passes. When Steve returns to the motel, he asks Sue if there was any word from the company about an environmental presence. Sue replies that none of the usual players have a presence in the area.
Dustin arrives at the local high school and introduces himself to Frank. He tells Frank that he represents an environmental group called Superior Athena and tells Frank he wants to help sway the town against Global. Frank says that the town will probably win, and Dustin tells Frank that Frank chose a much bigger fight than he thought but that Dustin can provide him with the one thing Frank needs to beat Steve: Proof. He gives Frank photos of dead cows and dying farms.
While Sue returns to Rob’s store for provisions and they flirt, Steve struggles with the car a piece of shit rental that he can’t get to work. Rob invites Sue to an open mic night at the local bar, but she politely declines. Steve notices Dustin put some gas into his truck and gets out of his car to stop him, but Dustin drives off paying Steve no mind. Before Sue leaves, Rob makes it clear that if she wants to sell Global to the town she’ll need to put on a friendly face and convince the whole town the door to door shit won’t cut it. Sue reluctantly agrees and leaves, only to have Steve come and tell her that there is definitely an environmental presence in the town.
Sue dresses up for the night and comments that she must really like Rob. Before they go into the bar, he jokingly asks what she’s going to sing and gets a light punch. Rob waves to Sue and she joins him for a drink he signed her up for karaoke. Steve goes to the bar and Alice approaches him, jokingly reintroducing himself. Rob watches Sue’s abysmal karaoke with a smile while Steve gets Alice’s number. At the end of her song, he shakes his head and goes “No.” But Rob insists he enjoyed it.
Dustin steps up to the mic and introduces himself as an environmentalist. He says he’s from Nebraska and that his farm was destroyed by Global and the land just died. His family lost everything and Dustin points out that Global’s lease contracts forbid people from talking about the results in court but didn’t prevent him from mentioning it in a public setting. He encourages everyone to think hard before the vote and emphasizes that if it can happen to one of them, it can happen to all of them. Dustin is then forced to sing by the residents and bursts into song singing Springsteen’s ‘Dancing in the Dark’. Before he leaves the bar, he seeks out Alice and insists what Dustin just said is not true he’s not a bad guy. But Alice’s look is not reassuring.
Outside the motel, Steve and Sue loiter and wait for Dustin to return to his room. Steve introduces himself as the Global rep that Dustin just trashed. Dustin points out that he knows everything about Steve Butler and what he does for Global. Sue gives Dustin a “donation” for his environmental cause and points out that they signed enough leases to begin development. She asks him to leave, but he just shakes his head, takes the money and goes into the motel.
The next morning, while the pair drives through the town Steve sees numerous anti-Global signs put up on various properties showing dead land and cows. They stop outside a house where Dustin has gotten permission from the owners to put up a sign. He asks Dustin what the fuck is going on since they had an agreement, but Dustin points out that they didn’t. Steve points out that Dustin took their money, but Dustin shows what he put the money to good use. Steve is livid, and Dustin makes it clear that while Steve has secured 60% of the land bought and paid for, but they aren’t fighting for land: they’re fighting for people. Steve insists that he is trying to help these people, but Dustin says the people have changed it’s not about the money anymore.
The next morning, Steve gets ready to leave and opens his door to find it covered with a poster that says “Global go home” covering the entire doorway. Steve rips through angrily and searches the hallway for Dustin, but it’s empty. Dustin, meanwhile, is giving a presentation to Alice’s classroom full of kids. He shows them a model farm and pours water from his farm in Nebraska over the model. He puts a lighter to the model, and it goes up in flames showing the kids how the fracking process went for his town. He jokingly puts class turtle near the flaming farm to illustrate why nothing could live there. After the presentation, he gives Alice a quick peck on the cheek and tells her that he’ll see her around.
Steve goes from house to house and gets numerous rejections. Dustin’s grassroots campaign is definitely working against Steve. He goes to a farm and talks to the owner pointing out that natural gas is a cleaner, safer alternative to gas which they went to war over. The owner points to his nephew walking around the grounds with a rifle and tells Steve that his brother the boy’s father died in Fallujah. The man goes on to say that he can’t justify risking that boy’s legacy and that the only reason Steve’s here is because they’re poor. He tells Steve that he won’t ever get what he came to take and that he doesn’t like the fact that Steve’s willing to sit there and try.
As they drive through the outskirts of the town, Steve realizes that the only way to win the towns people over is to show them that Global is actually committed to improving the town. He has Sue drive him out a wide expanse of field and suggests that it would be perfect for a town fair. It’d help them sway public support and win them good will. At the very least, it will show them what it’s like to have money.
Steve goes another pitch run to sign more leases and finds himself at Alice’s house. He tells her it’s quite a house for someone who doesn’t have as many cats. She explains that she used to live in the city, but when her dad died, she decided she didn’t want to give it up and moved back. She tells him to give her the pitch, but he says it’s getting late and that he can come back later.
He goes to have a drink at the bar, and is approached by several of the townsfolk who refused to sign leases. They call out to him and say that they heard his father was a farmer like them. They walk over to him and accuse him of knowing about all the problems natural gas will bring to their town. The leader of the group demands to know how Steve could turn on his own kind of people to sell them this shit and Steve responds that it’s because they’re ignorant: they see the end coming and they refuse to even try to save themselves. Global is offering all these farmers the chance to go out and get the money they need to start new lives for them and their kids, but they’re going to let it go to shit like his town did. One of the men punches Steve, and they leave.
Steve tries to get the town fair off the ground on his own and is surprised when Rob shows up to try and help out. Numerous townsfolk arrive in order to help including Frank and together they begin to piece a temporary fairground. After all the hard work, Steve goes to celebrate at the bar and buys the people who helped pitchers of beer. He sees Dustin and Dustin congratulates Steve since it’s a good idea, but it won’t be enough. Steve insists that he will win, and Dustin tells him that he just might as Alice arrives to leave on a date with Dustin. Sue tells Steve that he did a good job, but the next day’s weather comes and screws the fair a rain storm washing out any hope of the event being a success. When Sue tries to start the car, it dies. Steve flips out, kicking the car until Frank arrives in his truck and tells him that the weather is nice.
Frank invites the pair to dinner and at dinner; Frank reveals that he was familiar with the incident at Eldridge and how the plant’s closure killed the town’s economy. Sue asks Steve what he would have done if Global came into the town to offer him a chance to sell out and Steve hollowly says that he’d have taken the money and left. Frank quietly says that kind of mentality just doesn’t work where would the whole town go?
Steve and Frank go out to the porch, and it’s near sunset and Frank tells Steve that he’s a good man who shouldn’t be doing what he’s doing. Frank explains that it used to be harder to find people who were willing to go all in on things. He confesses that he needs the money as much as his neighbors and that he’s worried about the future, but he’s at the point in his life where he thinks he can cling to a bit of dignity.
When Steve and Sue return to the hotel they find a package waiting for them: inside is proof that all of Dustin’s “evidence” was faked the land was dead because the “farm” was located near the sea salt water was preventing the crops from growing. Steve presents this information to the town representatives and then seeks out Dustin as he prepares to leave. Steve is confused as to why a phony would run such a campaign and presses the issue until Dustin slips and mentions an incident in a town that Steve had never publicly mentioned as having issues since it had been handled internally at Global. He realizes that Dustin was a plant from Global used to elaborately win the town over by revealing the “environmentalist” as a fraud with an agenda. Dustin congratulates Steve on his promotion and leaves.
Sue walks into Rob’s store and he apologizes he won’t be going to the vote. They have a short goodbye where Rob tells her that he’s figured her out: she doesn’t care about any of this stuff, she just wants to go home and see her kid and he loves it.
Steve goes to the podium and holds up one of Dustin’s posters and tells them that Dustin’s lie wasn’t that he was an environmentalist using fake evidence to bring Global down Dustin was a plant by Global in order to discredit any other environmentalists in the town and win Steve and Sue the town’s leases. He confesses that he’s had a change of heart about the matter and doesn’t think it’s right to gamble the town’s future because if the accident happened at one Global town it could happen to McKinley.
Sue gets off the phone with the execs in the aftermath of the meeting the town voted against allowing Global into their town. Steve is fired for his role in the matter, and Sue is offered his promotion instead. He congratulates her, and she offers him a ride out of town, but he smiles and says goodbye heading into the bar where he know he’ll find Alice.
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