Seldom is cinematic grief drawn as starkly as Robin Wright paints it in Land, her feature directorial debut in which she also stars. As Edee, Wright crafts a state of being where loss is something to sit in, a chair to perch in and look out to the vastness of your own private pain. Edee has retreated to the mountains, staring out into their abyss as her grief evolves with them (and the cabin she rehabs) to the turn of the seasons. She cannot see anything but her suffering. Not the traffic of the city, not reminders of her past. Certainly not other people.
Written by Jesse Chatham and Erin Dignam, the film presents Edee as she is unable to cope with an unclarified loss and uproots her life to a cabin on an isolated mountainside in the Rockies. Edee eschews the help of others, arriving without any device connecting her to the outside world and barely enough acumen to survive the wilderness. When winter brings near disaster, her resolve to live a life completely alone is challenged by the rescuing arrival of Miguel (Demián Bichir), who offers to teach her the hunting skills needed to endure her environment. But he also brings the kind of questions Edee means to avoid – and with them, the flickering possibility of self-restoration.
With Land, Wright emerges as a director with assured narrative footing. Both behind and in front of the camera, she assembles a woman experiencing the isolating effect of other people when buried in the solitude of pain they cannot understand. Edee is (or, more likely, has become) someone of few words, and her willful submission to the harshness of her new surroundings is likely its own act of self-punishment. Wright doesn’t rely on obvious emotional storytelling tactics to reveal Edee’s interior journey, nor does the film move along the standard survival film playbook.
Instead, her developing relationship with nature informs our understanding of Edee, and Wright’s insight captures the landscape with hardened but often breathtaking narrative fluency. Shot by cinematographer Bobby Bukowski, Land creates a visual experience that not only reflects Edee’s state of being within the world around her, but one that becomes symbiotic as she creates a new life. It’s composed with a visual beauty that is also immersive into the brain of its protagonist, as affectionate towards her as it is to the wilds. Though the film is perhaps plotted too close to expectations, its visual compass contains depth.
As Land pushes forward, it inadvertently proves its protagonist was onto something about the company of others. The film is most effective in its silent stretches, detailing the arduous process of adapting to life in the wild, but also the slow mending of Edee’s soul. Chatham and Dignam’s dialogue often highlight the cliches of the story rather than its humanity, even when it’s as stark as Edee’s stoic reserve. This is especially true of Wright and Bickir’s final scenes together; the two actors are gifted at conveying things that can’t be put to simple words, and when the words come, they fall flat enough to distract from their performances. There is something about the quiet elsewhere that communicates what Edee is going through that makes words seem insufficient, or treacly. The final story is ultimately hopeful, but the film takes some unsatisfying closing shortcuts to get there.
Though Land’s power is sometimes diminished by its familiar elements, it remains grounded in Wright’s solid portrayal of reawakening. Her performance avoids posturing for sympathy and false subtlety, and is rewardingly confident in her own ability to strike the right balance in embodying Edee’s agony without varnish. Bichir is also as spectacular as he has ever been, remaining casual with his warm charm so as not to shake both Edee and the film’s delicate alchemy. Together their chemistry feels like a salve on the film’s grisled heart.
As a debut, Land shows Wright as a filmmaker with a precise insight into human nature and cautious hand on avoiding sentimentality, even when the script lacks her sophisticated balance. Though it ends more simplistic than it begins, the film is consistently arresting as a physically and psychologically astute reflection on finding the fire inside ourselves when we think it’s been stifled out entirely.
Land was screened during the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.