Robin Wright’s directorial debut may be named Land, but it certainly doesn’t tread any new ground. The film is a tactical retreat into the wilderness, where an appreciation for life and community can once again be found—after a personal tragedy—in the hardships of self-sufficiency. At least, that’s the idea. What’s delivered is a flat drama with some admittedly striking nature photography, though the biggest survival struggle becomes that of your own attention span.
Edee (Wright) moves to a log cabin in the middle of nowhere in the Rockies, getting off the grid with a sort of reckless disregard for her own well-being. It’s less suicide by frontiersmanship than a total and seemingly hasty withdrawl from civilization, though it still seems like it could be the former from time to time considering Edee’s sad attempts to do everything from chop wood to plant a garden to simply strike a match. It’s honestly hard to believe she survives for as long as she does on her own—let alone long enough to howl “It’s not working!” into the winter’s snow after a particularly unsuccessful hunt.
Further separating this script from a regular ol’ survival story, where Edee would slowly gain skills over a series of montages and Castaway-like revelations, are inelegantly brandished flashbacks and dream sequences hinting at the loss that drove her out here in the first place. The murky dark of the city, with shadowy home interiors and therapist offices, is just as dull to look at as their drama is to watch, while Edee’s dreamy hallucinations have a facile halcyon outline. That’s too bad, because aside from these on-the-nose segments, Wright’s compositions are sometimes quite beautiful—though it’s hard to make the lush evergreens, rivers and mountaintops of the West look anything but.
Teasing out her (quickly apparent) loss, which I won’t spoil because the film insists that teasing it out is worth something, cheapens the drama by conflating it with mystery. All of this complicates the contrived question the screenplay soon asks, which is does Edee really want solitude, or does she just need a handsome survivalist friend?
Enter the Rugged Caring Mountain Man, Miguel (Demián Bichir), the kind of guy with nothing better to do than drop everything and be a full-time caregiver to a random newbie. “You’re a good heart, Miguel,” says Alawa (Sarah Dawn Pledge), the Native American woman who does most of the initial rescuing and nothing much else. Miguel is a kind of romance novel saint, a burly bear with a pelt of flannel and salt-and-pepper hair that spends his time delivering clean drinking water to reservations and teaching hapless city folk the ropes. He also seems to share Edee’s trauma almost exactly and looks a whole hell of a lot like her dead husband. Don’t worry, he’s not a ghost nor a figment of her imagination, though it would be more interesting if either were the case.
Bichir, for his part, acquits himself well in both the role and the cowboy hat he sports through much of it. You can often find yourself drifting off into daydreams of what he could do in a real Western, or even in a film that tackled its complex duo’s connection with more depth. Wright is also mostly serviceable, though she has a hard time pulling off the stiff, damaged aspects of her character without telegraphing the movements and gestures that attempt to define her as such: When she stands awkwardly to shoo Miguel or when he strikes too close to a nerve in conversation, it looks planned and forced rather than truly tense.
Most of that still comes back to Jesse Chatham and Erin Dignam’s script, full of hot-cold plotting and seemingly gravid lines that turn out to just be full of hot air: Edee claims, “If I don’t belong here, I don’t belong anywhere.” Why? Hard to say. Probably just because it sounds good. It’s not like she has a personal connection to the land, the cabin or the lifestyle. Her preparation and purpose seem to shift, partway through the movie, from that of an injured animal crawling under a porch to die to a certified Oregon Trail survivor. Miguel’s cowboy power knows no bounds. A series of those dull getting-better montages bleed together, with the standout scenes that rise above the lovely landscape filler—that would make more sense coming from the tourism board of Wyoming than an indie drama—featuring such dumb writerly moments as the bestowing of a weird nickname (“Yoda”), which is almost as bad and nonsensical a pop culture reference as Hillbilly Elegy’s Terminator schtick. It’s ridiculous, and only gets more so as the film approaches its emotional climax.
Land isn’t nearly as bad as its lowest moments, but it still stretches its meager 89 minutes to its limits. There’s just not much to its drama—Edee has very little interiority and her relationship with Miguel is as For Dummies as the books Edee brings to learn how to camp—and trying to live off what’s there is like trying to survive winter with just a squirrel in your larder. Wright’s inauspicious directorial style mostly showcases a good eye for landscape and the framing of realistic actions—taking a bath, opening a can, bursting through a door. Hopefully the next script she handles will highlight her strengths in more fertile fields.
Director: Robin Wright
Writer: Jesse Chatham, Erin Dignam
Starring: Robin Wright, Demián Bichir, Kim Dickens
Release Date: Sundance, February 12, 2021 (theatrical)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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