The Promised Land (2023)

‘Promised Land’ yields a bountiful crop

For an abject lesson in being careful what you wish for, Nikolaj Arcel’s “The Promised Land” is tough to beat. Among the contenders on this year’s coveted Oscar shortlist for films in another language, the movie cleverly transplants the American Western to 18th century Denmark, where a personification of Gary Cooper locks horns with a ruthless, preening land baron.

Arcel fully indulges his inner John Ford, clearly paying homage to the master by pilfering his iconic inside-looking-out doorway shot from “The Searchers.” But it’s Fred Zinnemann’s “High Noon” that he aims to emulate, with lanky Mads Mikkelsen seamlessly assuming the Cooper role as the strong, silent hero battling insurmountable odds in the face of death.

In the pair’s follow-up to their Oscar-nominated “A Royal Affair,” they return to 18th century Denmark, where King Frederick V is seeking to enhance his wealth by offering fledgling farmers a shot at nobility if they can settle the barren and lawless Heath of Jutland. The lone taker is Mikkelsen’s Ludvig Kahlen, an overconfident 25-year veteran of the German military harboring a clandestine plan to tame the Jutland and thus achieve his goal of aspiring to the aristocracy and attaining the right to possess servants.

But first he must conquer soil suitable only to heather, rocks and sand. Oh, and there’s also the matter of desperate outlaws, a nonexistent labor force and a megalomaniac in Frederik De Schinkel (a deliciously vile Simon Bennebjerg) who fancies the Heath, and everyone on it, as his own. None of that bothers Kahlen as he rides in majestically atop his trusty steed, armed with nothing more than his wits, a sharp knife and a single-shot flintlock pistol.

From there, the script penned by Arcel and Anders Thomas Jensen (the original “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) pretty much writes itself, punctuated by shocking bursts of violence and ever-evolving shifts in power. There’s also a clumsily constructed love triangle involving Kahlen, his fugitive housekeeper Ann Barbara (Amanda Collin) and De Schinkel’s financially strapped cousin, Edel Helene Leising (Kristine Kujath Thorp).

As if that weren’t enough, Arcel tosses in a subplot about Kahlen reluctantly taking in a precocious child outlaw in the so-called “darkling,” Anmai Mus (Melina Hagberg). Might she hold the key to unlocking Kahlen’s deep-rooted stoicism? I’d say it’s a good bet, considering how the script, based on Ida Jessen’s novel, “The Captain and Ann Barbara,” pretty much signals its every move; the only exception being a twisty variation on the inevitable final showdown.

Yet, it works brilliantly thanks to the film’s brisk pace and a terrific ensemble which also includes Gustav Lindh as Anton Eklund, the peace-loving preacher with a blind belief in Kahlen’s well-masked goodness. There’s not a bad performance to be found, with Mikkelsen and Bennebjerg (“Borgen”) both in peak form as polar opposites plagued by a gnawing need for respect.

Who will ultimately gain it is never a mystery. But that’s not Arcel’s goal in what eventually reveals itself to be a potent commentary on toxic masculinity. In that sense, “The Promised Land” best resembles Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven,” a revisionist Western in which a mindset of kill-or-be-killed gallops into an existential reckoning. It comes amid a particularly bloody third act in which Kahlen arrives at a crossroads where he’s forced to choose between the selfishness of success and the immense challenge of embracing his humanity.

Only an actor as superb as Mikkelsen could project this internal struggle with nothing more than his craggy face and piercing eyes, as Kahlen suddenly realizes how much his wrath has cost him. It haunts him, and it haunts you even more. This makes it all the more regrettable that Arcel opts to cheapen the impact via a pandering ending sure to please some, but feel like a cheap ploy to others. But that’s a minor slip-up in an otherwise masterfully crafted treatise on how a dream can descend into a nightmare when a man’s propensity towards sympathy and kindness is trumped by the hollowness of his myopic pursuits.

Movie review

The Promised Land

Rated: R for some sexuality, bloody violence, language and brief nudity

Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Amanda Collin, Simon Bennebjerg, Gustav Lindh and Kristine Kujath Thorp

Director: Nikolaj Arcel

Writers: Anders Thomas Jensen and Nikolaji Arcel

Runtime: 127 minutes

Grade: B+

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