Steve Butler (Matt Damon) has caught the eye of Global Cross Power Solution's top management, an energy company that specializes in obtaining natural gas trapped in underground shale deposits through a process known as fracking. Steve Butler's success lies in his ability to not only sign-up a large percent of the land owners, but to close the deals quicker and at a lower cost then any other company representative.
Butler and his partner Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand) arrive in a small farming town in Pennsylvania where they stop in a local store run by Rob (titus Welliver) to buy clothing that will allow them to blend in. Butler won't buy new boots though, telling Thomason that he always wears his grandfather's boots. The area farmers, like much of rural America, are struggling to keep their family farm profitable. Many of the land owners take pride in the number of generations that have owned the land and fear that they will be unable to hold onto the land promised to their children.
Butler grew up in a small town very similar to the town in Pennsylvania where he is assigned to obtain contracts from land-owners for drilling rights on their properties. Butler believes that these towns, which have been hard hit by economic decline, are not recovering. In his own town, when the Caterpillar assembly plant closed, the town quickly died. He believes that without industry, a town cannot survive solely on family farmers, and this is a fantasy that can't be supported any longer. He believes in offering towns like this one a last chance. One store owner tells them, "We can't sell the scenery, can we?"
Butler and Thomason initially plan on being in town for 2-3 days, thinking that getting the farmers' signatures on the contracts will be very easy. While talking with the first farmer he meets, Butler promises him that he'll become a millionaire. Butler meets with Gerry Richards (Ken Strunk), a senior member of the supervisors' board, before a town hall meeting and Richards implies that he could be a very persuasive negative influence which Global can't afford at this early stage of obtaining drilling rights in the state. Butler offers him $30,000 for his assistance in persuading the town folk to accept Global's offer. The politician holds out for more, but Butler insists that the company's estimates of $30 million in revenue only allow them to offer him 1/10 of 1% as payment for his assistance. Butler meets an attractive teacher, Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt), at the local bar that night and she persuades him to accept a challenge in a drinking game - Absolut (sic) Madness. He wakes the next morning asleep in a chair in her front room, not remembering most of what transpired the night before, but she assures him that nothing happened between them.
At the town meeting that night, Supervisor Richards attempts to persuade everyone attending to accept Global's offer when Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook) speaks up. Yates is the high school science teacher and he raises questions about the safety of fracking and Global's environmental issues and legal record. Yates refers to a university study that places the value of the shale oil in the area at $150 million, and calls for a town vote in 2 weeks. A large portion of the audience stand to represent their alliance with Yates and Richards is angry for Butler for understating the value of the deal, and undercutting the payment the politician received. Butler sees Dustin Noble (John Krasinski). who appears to be a representative of an environmental group. In a Skype video conference that night with company executives, they learn that Yates has an MA in engineering, a degree from MIT and a PhD from Cornell. Yates worked in research and development at Boeing for 30 years before retiring to teach science in this town's high school.
The next day, Noble visits the science teacher Yates in his classroom. He tells Yates he works for Superior Athena, a small environmental group, and offers his support against Global's efforts to buy the drilling rights. He shows Yates pictures of dead cows in a field with a silo in the background and implies they were killed by the drilling company's work. Thomason and Butler try to make friends with the local people at the local bar in an effort to win their confidence when Noble also shows up. At an open mike night, both Thomason and Noble take the stage, and Noble is far more effective in connecting with the crowd than Thomason. He describes how his own family's sixth-generation farm was lost after signing a contract with Global. Within nine months 70% of their cattle were sickened or killed, his father was unable to pay his loans, and the bank took his home.
Thomason and Butler confront Noble at the local hotel where they are all staying. Butler accuses Noble and his "stoner buddies" of telling bullshit sob stores to mislead people. They attempt to make a large donation to his environmental organization and persuade him to cooperate with them in obtaining the needed contracts. Noble accepts the envelope but the next day they find him talking with town members and posting signs, "Global Go Home". He thanks them for their donation and says he's put it to good use and confidently tells Butler that the people and times have changed.
Noble demonstrates to the children in Alice's classroom at the local school how fracking requires drilling and injecting water and a number of chemicals into the ground to get the natural gas out. He graphically illustrates how the injection process can affect a toy farm and sets it on fire. As he departs, he kisses Alice on the cheek. Butler and Thomason continue to visit small landowners and sign contracts, but Butler appears more ambivalent about his work. He finds Noble talking animatedly with locals in the town's coffee shop, and a previously friendly waitress now serves him as if he is a stranger.
Meanwhile, Steve and Sue continue trying to buy land and make their sales pitches to individual farmers. Driving the are puzzled by a herd of horses which seem smaller than cows. They sponsor the local little league team and put on a good corporate face.
Butler decides to put on a town fair to try to show the residents what it would be like to have money. He visits the school teacher Alice and when she asks to hear his pitch, he is reluctant to make the presentation. At a local bar he is confronted by several locals, and he tells them they don't understand the "fuck you" money they can have to take care of all their needs. He doesn't understand why they stand in the way and then one of them hits him in the face before they leave.
While building the town fair site, several locals show up to help, and as they finish the day with some beers at the local bar, he chats with Noble. He sees Alice only for Noble to greet her and they leave together. The town fair is rained out the next day and appears to be a failure when Yates stops by and invites them to his home for a meal. The men chat and Yates is sad that Steve is a good man but on the wrong side of the issue. Yates points out his herd of miniature horses on his hobby farm.
At the hotel that night, Butler receives a package from Global that includes a enlarged copy of a picture of dead cattle on a farm field that Noble said came from his family's Nebraska farm. The enlargement shows that what everyone thought was a silo is in fact a lighthouse, proving that Noble has been deceiving everyone.
Butler calls Supervisor Richards with news of Noble's betrayal and then visits Alice, trying to prove that he's not the bad guy. Alice has a verdant farm, she came back home to take over the family place but is unsure how she will keep it going. Steve returns to the hotel to find Noble is loading his truck and leaving town. They talk, and Noble accidentally reveals that he knows the picture of the dead cattle in the field with the lighthouse was taken in Lafayette, Louisiana. Butler suddenly realizes that Noble is also with Global and that Noble's job was to discredit the environmental movement. Noble reveals that he arranged for Butler to receive the "confidential" photos of the farm and the lighthouse and that he engineered the entire public relations effort. Noble wishes Butler good luck back at the company's headquarters in New York.
At a town meeting the next day, the citizens are prepared to vote on Global's efforts to buy their property. Butler tells how the barn in the picture reminds him of his grandfather's barn. He reveals that Noble had manipulated them and that he actually is employed by Global. He leaves the meeting to find Thomason on the phone with Global. She tells him that he's fired and that she is leaving for New York. Butler walks to Alice's home and she welcomes him in.