'Land': Film Review | Sundance 2021

Land
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
Quietly heart-wrenching and keenly observed.
2/12/2021

Robin Wright stars in and directs a drama centered on the self-imposed isolation of a woman in the throes of devastating loss.

Over the past year, many of us have become intimately acquainted with a "remote" approach to life and work. For the protagonist of Land, a woman stricken by unfathomable loss, remoteness is not a matter of cyber readjustments but an existential imperative. She turns away from what's left of her life in the city — specifically, from people and their need for her to get "better" — and exiles herself to a mountaintop cabin, believing that she's prepared for the wilderness. Land, which marks Robin Wright's first time at the helm of a feature, poses some of life's starkest questions with a simple, elemental force, and with deep wells of compassion.

After her work in front of and behind the camera for House of Cards, Wright is a practiced hand at simultaneous toplining and directing, but the film takes her double duties to a new scale and depth. As an actor, Wright has always expressed more through restraint than abandon. That sensibility is well matched to a story that revolves around tussles with death and the life-changing kindness of strangers. In the impressively unadorned drama, which will follow its Sundance premiere with a Feb. 12 theatrical release, Wright and her co-star, Demián Bichir, deliver performances that are compellingly contained and profoundly affecting.

A pre-title sequence whose concision sets the tone for the film's narrative economy reveals that Edee (Wright) is overwhelmed with grief. It's soon clear that she has lost her husband and young son, but the screenplay, by Jesse Chatham and Erin Digman, withholds specifics about the circumstances of their deaths until far into the story — not in the usual teasing way of too many films about mourning, but in perfect sync with the character's inability to share her pain. "Why would I want to share that?" Edee asks the therapist she's come to visit at the urging of her concerned sister (House of Cards castmate Kim Dickens). When she walks through downtown Chicago, the rumbling of the el encapsulates the emotional cacophony she's determined to escape.

Above all, Edee needs to be away from people — from the need to explain herself. And so she heads west, to the mountains of Wyoming, where she purchases a neglected hunting cabin on a parcel of land at the top of a long dirt road. Later in the movie, cherished mementos suggest that this trip is a return of sorts, but nothing is spelled out definitively, and Land is all the more powerful for it.

What ensues is no glamping adventure, no rebirth-through-fixer-upper escapade, but a primal collision. The unfussy lensing by cinematographer Bobby Bukowski captures the brilliance and the brutal intensity of the stunning Alberta locations. "Rustic" doesn't begin to describe Edee's log cabin, with its raw wood and brick, its outhouse and its layers of dust and detritus. Trevor Smith's production design alludes to the ghosts of previous occupants just as deftly as he conveys the privilege of Edee's city life through a couple of briefly glimpsed interiors: her comfortable apartment and the therapist's elegant office.

That Edee has the financial means to take this drastic leap — to buy the land and all the gear she needs for a long-haul hermitage — is understood but never dwelled on. However punishing the events that bring her to this point, and however boundless the pain she endures, she's able to make this choice. But it's evident that she's engaged in more than an exercise, yearning for something she can't articulate: Bereft and adrift, she needs to earn her survival, minute by minute, to feel alive against the often unforgiving elements.

That this might also be a suicide mission is the paradox at the heart of Land. Edee disposes of her vehicle and her phone, ensuring that she's cut off from humanity and putting her at the mercy of nature and subsistence skills that are minimal, however much she pores over The Northwest Game Processing Handbook. Eventually two strangers pull her back from death's door: a soulful man-of-few-words hunter, Miguel (Bichir), and his friend Alawa, a plainspoken nurse (Sarah Dawn Pledge, making a strong impression).

Tending to Edee at her weakest, Miguel is efficient and self-effacing. In a shot of her recuperating in the glow of the fireplace, director Wright imparts the sense of openness and safety that still eludes her character. When Edee has regained enough strength to ask Miguel why he's helping her, his response is born of the same hard-earned, unforced spiritual wisdom that characterizes the film: "You were in my path."

With much of Land devoid of dialogue, lines like that one reverberate. Even the sparingly used flashbacks — of Edee's sister, husband (Warren Christie) and son (Finlay Wojtak-Hissong) — are mostly wordless. The helmer and Bukowski create a subtle, poetic interplay between the present moment and these glimpses of the past. Edee's time on the mountain unfolds incrementally, its passing marked by the changing seasons, the length of her hair, and her growing comfort, under Miguel's tutelage, with the nuts and bolts of hunting, trapping and foraging. (The film doesn't fetishize the hunting, treating it in a matter-of-fact way and keeping the particulars of gutting and skinning offscreen.)

A friendship develops slowly between these two similarly wounded yet resilient souls, who respect and understand each other even though they know little about each other's lives. In the performances of Wright and Bichir, what's unspoken between Edee and Miguel is resounding. They have their playful exchanges too, notably in a campfire sing-along of Tears for Fears' "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" (its second showcase in a recent feature, after Ethan Hawke's rendition in Tesla).

Elsewhere, the stirring minor-key string score is a fine match for this story's quiet directness and its yearning mix of calamity, beauty, deprivation and unexpected gifts. Without a drop of self-congratulatory "enlightenment," Land occupies a wild terrain of ineffable tenderness.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Distributor: Focus Features
Production companies: Big Beach, Flashlight Films, Nomadic Pictures, Cinetic Media
Cast: Robin Wright, Demián Bichir, Kim Dickens, Brad Leland, Sarah Dawn Pledge, Warren Christie, Finlay Wojtak-Hissong
Director: Robin Wright
Screenwriters: Jesse Chatham, Erin Digman
Producers: Allyn Stewart, Lora Kennedy, Leah Holzer, Peter Saraf
Executive producers: Robin Wright, Marc Turtletaub, Eddie Rubin, Chad Oakes, Michael Frislev, John Sloss, Steven Farneth
Director of photography: Bobby Bukowski
Production designer: Trevor Smith
Costume designer: Kemal Harris
Editors: Anne McCabe, Mikkel E.G. Nielsen
Music: Ben Sollee, Time for Three
Sound designer: Paul Hsu
Casting: Jackie Lind

89 minutes