In that fragile borderland between waking and sleeping, dream and reality, the kingdom of possibilities and the dungeon of "what might have been," lies the "Promised Land" (selected theaters) which writer-director Michael Hoffman discovers in a pretty little Utah town.
In his film--a psychological, poetic portrait of losers and winners in small-town America--Hoffman sets us down in a slice of cold heartland--bright and chilly--where two young couples cross paths with ironic and violent results on a Christmas holiday. The town is warm, but over it is the vast cold sky, around it the fierce deserts--blank as dead smiles, shredded by mean highways cutting like knives through Utah and Nevada.
The actors' performances and Hoffman's vision are what drive the film along. The basic story is as simple and as tragic as a local news item. Based on a true incident involving two ex-classmates in Hoffman's own Idaho hometown, the movie's logical but unpredictable climax is the kind of messy coincidence that tabloids thrive on, a scandal involving sports, sex, crime and death.
Three of the characters thrown together here are archetypal smalltowners. There's Davey Hancock (Jason Gedrick), high school basketball superstar-turned-frustrated local cop; Mary (Tracy Pollan), ex-cheerleader seduced by the brighter cities outside, and tormented misfit Danny Rivers (Kiefer Sutherland), on his way home for Christmas.
Danny--mockingly called "the Senator" because of his pathetic dad's (Oscar Rowland) aspirations for him--is now a small-time Reno drug dealer, driving a garish pink Plymouth with an angelic hood ornament, a garish pink-haired punk girlfriend squealing beside him.
She's the catalyst for the climax, Bev the "bad girl" (Meg Ryan). And she's almost an archetype too: the amoral city woman with an evil laugh who destroys quickly, thoughtlessly. As Bev, Ryan gives an amazing performance, a real stunner. Ripping against the elegiac mood, she galvanizes the movie--whipping psychopathically between wounded tenderness and shrieking rage, raucous gaiety and mean, starved fury. The other three keep contemplating the wreckage of dreams in a hometown called, appropriately, Ashville. Bev keeps driving ahead. Hating her own past, furiously burning bridges, she's the most alive character in the movie--and the deadliest.
As the high school's once-golden couple, Gedrick and Pollan suggest a slightly brittle honesty and generosity. As Danny, Sutherland suggests someone inwardly vulnerable, hurt, lost--as crippled as his dad. This may seem at first a flaw--febrile romanticization of delinquency--but Sutherland keeps his performance true. His sensitivity anchors the film.
In a major irony, we can see that Danny the outsider loves both Davey and Mary. He's infatuated with the very forces of stability and success that exclude him.
The film suggests that people become trapped in social roles that subvert their characters, drive them artificially against each other--and that the worst traps are unreasonable expectations. Yet these same expectations sometimes have a mad, uncatchable beauty. Like gun-crazy Bev, they blaze against the dreariness, light up the skies and burn up the ground. The title "Promised Land" is ironic. The promised land is the one these characters will never reach: the dream they either have to give up or maybe die for.
There's something a little tentative and unsatisfying about the last few scenes but, forgetting them, "Promised Land" is almost a great American movie--in the anguished, poetically off-kilter tradition of Kazan's "East of Eden," Malick's "Days of Heaven" and "Badlands," Ray's "They Live by Night." Hoffman, who has made one British film ("Privileged") and one in Scotland ("Restless Natives")--and was sometimes mistaken for a Britisher by critics--is cutting bitterly against his own American grain here. Yet this is not a vicious film.
Somehow, out of this material--the kind lesser films regularly misuse--Hoffman and crew get something larger, more resonant. The film becomes a prom march turned dirge, a school anthem split into cathedral polyphonies. As we watch, the sex-hot rock songs of sweet 16 start weeping in a bruised and bluesy lament.
It's one of the saddest movies you'll ever see. Even its humor is tinged with melancholy. The golden interiors and frosty vistas--delicately lit by cinematographers Ueli Steiger and Alexander Gruszynski--seem brushed with tears. This pessimism may turn off audiences accustomed to automatic movie affirmations. Others may wince at the persistent poetic symbolism: the numerous angels that suggest lost paradise and hell on earth, Danny's gift to Mary of a book with blank pages, the Christmas watch that Bev shoplifts for Danny's dad (Oscar Rowland)--stealing time for a dying man.
Yet the film's hopefulness lies in its compassion--the humanity with which each character is viewed, the relish in both the grotesqueries and beauty of the American landscape. "Promised Land" (MPAA-rated R for nudity, sex and language) is a film of lost chances, a story of people who try to go home again: why some of them can't, and why some of them have stayed in spite of themselves. It's a gently scary film, and its images echo long afterwards--the serpent on Bev's back, the trapped dustiness of Danny's old house, all the angels passing by . . . and the lonely pink car lost in love's desert, rushing toward crushed dreams, whirling slowly in its mad and sandy spins of death. 'PROMISED LAND'
A Vestron release of an Oxford Film Company presentation of a Wildwood production. Producer Rick Stevenson. Director-writer Michael Hoffman. Executive producer Robert Redford. Camera Ueli Steiger, Alexander Gruszynski. Editor David Spiers. Music James Newton Howard. Production design Eugenio Zanetti. With Jason Gedrick, Kiefer Sutherland, Meg Ryan, Tracy Pollan, Oscar Rowland.
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.
MPAA rating: R (under 17 requires an accompanying parent or adult guardian).