A single-minded former military officer wants to develop a farm on soil has been deemed too tough to till. An unscrupulous land baron stands in his way.
That may sound like a dozen Westerns you've seen, but The Promised Land, a sturdy frontier drama, takes place in mid-18th Century Denmark.
Mads Mikkelsen, at his flinty best, anchors a story that pits his character, the bastard child of a nobleman, against a sadistic aristocrat (Simon Bennebjerg) who'll do anything to maintain control of the Jutland heath.
Director Nikolaj Arcel leans heavily on Mikkelsen's sternly chiseled performance while introducing themes that touch on racism and the cruelties of a hierarchical society.
The Promised Land has as clearly a drawn villain as you could want. Bennebjerg's Frederik De Schinkel favors horrific measures of control, including scalding a runaway tenant farmer with boiling water. He brutally rapes the women who serve on his estate.
Recognizable to American audiences for his work in Casino Royale (2006) and more recently, Indiana Jones the Dial of Destiny, Mikkelsen gives his Ludvig von Kahlen, the battle-scarred aura of a man who has seen too much.
But Kahlen refuses to be defeated. He wants to spread civilization to the heath, and, in the long term, earn the status and recognition of a nobleman.
No revolutionary, Kahlen doesn't aim to topple the prevailing order. He hopes to join it, and he believes he can curry the king's favor by proving that the land on the heath is arable.
Seen only once and briefly, the king wants to settle the heath but his skeptical advisors work against him. They allow Kahlen to proceed as a way to humor the king. But they believe that even the strong-willed Kahlen won't be able to conquer the heath.
Initially, Kahlen finds three allies for his work: a paster (Gustav Lindh) who wants to build a church on the heath and a couple (Morten Hee Andersen and Amanda Collin) who've fled Schinkel's tyranny.
Kahlen also cares for a Roma child (Melina Hagberg) whose dark complexion turns her into an outcast and allows Arcel to expose the racist superstitions of the settlers Kahlen finally attracts.
At various points, Kahlen also encounters an admiring noblewoman (Kristine Kujath Thorp) who disdains the prospect of marriage to Schinkel. She has her eye on him in a way that he can't quite handle.
Gradually, Kahlen turns his crew into a family and by the film's end, we realize that Arcel has been staging a stark character study in which Kahlen's commitment to order collides with Schinkel's belief in a chaos, which he uses to justify his abominable behavior.
I won't give away important plot points but relationships with Collin's character, who serves as a housekeeper, and with Hagberg's character allow Kahlen's humanity to emerge -- albeit in ways that don't break faith with the staunch fiber that compels him.
The movie's third act feels a bit too compressed, and The Promised Land occasionally flirts with melodrama, but it tells an involving story that embodies the spirit of the bleak, unforgiving landscape on which it unfolds.