Promised Land

When Robert Redford established his Sundance Institute for the development of small independent American movies, Promised Land is just the sort of film he must have had in mind.

This movie is absolutely uncompromising in its portrayal of the souring of an American Dream and a tragic aftermath. Only a gutsy producer would follow through on such a script.

Having said that, and full of applause for Redford’s high ideals, I have to admit I wish Promised Land were a better movie. It is serious, ambitious, and doggedly non-sensational; unfortunately, those elements don’t automatically produce interesting cinema.

Writer-director Michael Hoffman, teaming up again with his producer partner Rick Stevenson (their most recent film was Restless Natives), based the script on a true story that happened in the small town where Hoffman grew up, a story that ended with a boy shooting and killing another boy one winter night. The kids were former high school classmates.

In Hoffman’s fictionalized film, the two boys go off on different courses after high school. The misfit (Kiefer Sutherland) leaves the small Utah town to wander around the Southwest. When we pick him up two years later, he’s a scruffy drifter marrying an unstable girl (Meg Ryan) whom he’s known for three days. On a whim they decide to head back to Utah.

Meanwhile, the class basketball hero (Jason Gedrick) has found a bitter aftermath to his brilliant high school career: He wasn’t good enough in college and he lost his athletic scholarship. Now he’s a policeman, back in the small town, all too aware that he’s losing his old girlfriend (Tracy Pollan); she’s tasting the exotic newness of far-off college.

The movie cuts back and forth between the barren road travels of the misfit couple and the equally barren life in the small town. They come together in a terrible encounter in a convenience-store parking lot.

The on-location shooting in Utah provides a suitably bleak setting for this story, in the looming mountains, the snowy side streets, the eerie joyride that Sutherland and Ryan take through the salt flats. Hoffman gets these and other details right, but there’s something empty and stolid about the film’s relentless grimness. The despair of these lives simply isn’t all that illuminating, and the film’s forward motion feels arbitrary. Of course, Hoffman may argue that that’s part of the point, but it doesn’t make the story any more compelling.

The actors are a little lost in all of this, too. Meg Ryan (Innerspace) is a star a-borning, but she can’t suggest why her goofball character does what she does; and Sutherland has played the hesitant outsider one too many times. Only Gedrick, almost unrecognizable from his dopey role in Iron Eagle, scores strongly. He really captures the taut self-hatred of his disappointed character, and he’s got a jackal-like intensity that, in the aftermath of the meaningless tragedy, makes his hair-trigger explosion seem all to inevitable.

First published in The Herald, February 4, 1988

I have not re-visited the film. Around this time I got to know producer Rick Stevenson, a Seattle-area filmmaker who had met Hoffman at Oxford (where they launched Hugh Grant’s career with their film Privilege, also the first film of James Wilby and Imogen Stubbs and composer Rachel Portman, which is a pretty impressive batting average).

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