Producers: Allyn Stewart, Lora Kennedy, Leah Holzer and Peter Saraf Director: Robin Wright Screenplay: Jesse Chatham and Erin Dignam Cast: Robin Wright, Demián Bichir, Kim Dickens, Brad Leland, Sarah Dawn Pledge, Warren Christie and Finlay Wojtak-Hissong Distributor: Focus Features
Actress Robin Wright’s feature directorial debut is a tale of grief and recovery, but one played out in a magnificent, if potentially lethal, environment. “Land”—which could refer to the process of returning to emotional stability as much as the location where it happens—aims directly for the heart and initially touches it, but slips and stumbles on the way to resolution, much as its protagonist does in the snowy wilds where she chooses to hide herself away.
We first encounter Wright’s Edee Mathis (Wright) in a therapist’s office in Chicago; her concerned sister Emma (Kim Dickens) has urged her to get professional help to confront her inability to deal with what we shortly learn through fragmentary flashbacks was the loss of her loving husband (Warren Christie) and their adorable little son (Finlay Wojtak-Hissong).
Edee doesn’t want to share her pain with others—as she says, why would she want anyone else to feel as miserable as she does?—and so she packs up and heads west, to a small town in Wyoming, where she buys a cabin in the mountains. She intends to live off the land there, being certain to trash her phone and have the rental car removed as she settles in, despite warnings from the real estate man (Brad Leland) about how unwise it is to be out of touch in such a rugged hunting area.
Why, precisely, she’s decided on this place of escape isn’t made explicit, though there are suggestions that it represents a return to some past experience. But it quickly proves to have been an impractical choice. Edee doesn’t possess the strength or know-how to survive in such a challenging environment, and after her camp is ravaged by a bear and the supplies she’s brought destroyed, she practically freezes to death.
She’s saved only by the intervention of a passing hunter named Miguel (Demián Bichir), who tends her with the help of local nurse Alawa (Sarah Dawn Pledge). They nurse her back to health, even though she refuses to go into town for treatment, and Miguel becomes a friend and mentor. He teaches her to hunt, trap and skin animals, and to tend her little home. And in passing he reveals his story—his wife and daughter were killed in a car crash—and new purpose, helping to bring safe water to the local Native American community.
Edee is still overwhelmingly sad, but gradually grows more self-sufficient, so much that she feels comfortable agreeing to take in Miguel’s dog when he tells her he has to go away for awhile. When his absence becomes extended, she makes the long trek into town to search for Alawa and ask about him. You can probably guess what happens when they’re reconnected.
There are moments of lightness in “Land”—pop references to “Star Wars” (Miguel has never seen it, which Edee finds astonishing) and “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” (Miguel teaches her the lyrics), and jokes (Miguel asks Edee, who requests not to be told news of the outside world, whether that would extend to an alien invasion)—but the mood is generally morose, although Wright and writers Jesse Chatham and Erin Dignam avoid mawkishness, opting for something more discreet and gentle.
Wright’s performance is indeed strong, a fact made more impressive because she’s also directing, which could invite overstatement. There are certainly times here when she doesn’t hold back, but for the most part they feel dramatically earned. And she secures quite lovely support from Bichir, who, even in his character’s most revealing moments manages to maintain a welcome reticence, avoiding even a hint of sanctimoniousness almost up to the very end. This is primarily a two-hander; among the supporting cast the stoic Pledge leaves the strongest impression.
Of course, the locations—the film, though set in Wyoming, was shot in Alberta—are breathtaking, and gorgeously shot by Bobby Bukowski. By contrast the production design by Trevor Smith and costumes by Kemal Harris are simplicity itself (though made more effective through Bukowski’s use of light and shadow). and the score by Ben Sollee and Time for Three is understated but supportive.
And yet in the end despite its many virtues “Land” is emotionally insistent but at the same time rather thin. As characters neither Edee nor Miguel is much developed beyond their quiet grief; all we’re told is that each must work through the mourning process, but while it’s suggested (and in Miguel’s case, made fairly explicit) why it must take such an extraordinary form, it still seems a contrived means of placing them in such a purgatorial situation. The editing by Anne McCabe and Mikkel E.G. Nielsen, moreover, tries its best to smooth over the longueurs, but can’t help sometimes seeming dilatory.
Wright has drawn a portrait of extreme bereavement that’s compelling on the surface but feels a bit shallow underneath.