Review: A Flimsy Script Hinders a Beautifully Filmed, Acted Land

It’s rare that I wish a film were longer than its economic 84-minute run-time, but such is the case for Robin Wright’s directorial debut, Land. From a script by Jesse Chatham and Erin Dignam, Wright stars as Edee, a woman in a deep state of grief who’s determined to fall off civilization’s grid entirely; within the first few moments of the film, she’s left Chicago with nothing but what she can fit in a U-Haul trailer and found herself in a rundown and neglected cabin in the mountains of Wyoming, outhouse and all. Through a few early flashbacks and her own visualizations while she’s getting settled at the cabin, we gather that she’s grieving a lost husband and son and is tethered to this life only by a sister, Emma (Kim Dickens), who makes Edee promise she won’t hurt herself.

Image courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

The mostly silent first act unfolds as Edee fights to get her footing in the brutal (but beautiful) wilderness; the cabin needs an exhausting deep clean and repairs, nothing will grow in the garden she’s planted, and when winter hits and she’s not ready with enough dry firewood, she seems to hit her breaking point, her already weak grip on some semblance of a life loosening entirely. Of course, if that first winter on the mountain did her in, there wouldn’t be much of a film to recommend, so it’s no spoiler to say that she survives, thanks to help from her closest neighbor, Miguel (Demián Bichir). Seeing smoke from her chimney one day while out hunting and none the next, he smartly decides to check in on the cabin only to discover a woman nearly dead of starvation, frostbite and grief. With the help of a local nurse (Edee refuses to go to the hospital in town for help), she slowly recovers her strength and decides not to give up on her plan to live on her own in the mountains after all. Miguel teaches her to hunt, she learns the right way to plant a garden and soon she’s created a quiet and calm, if isolated, new version of life for herself.

With Edee at its center, Land is about the cyclical nature of life, about the value in pushing through our darkest days in order to be around for the brighter ones that are surely on the other side. As a filmmaker, Wright creates a world around Edee that is as gorgeous as it is threatening, her decision to remove any and all ties to the outside world both liberating and daunting. Sweeping photography of the pine-covered mountains in every season creates a deep sense of connection to Edee’s surroundings as time passes and her wounds, physical and emotional, begin to heal. As the star of the film, Wright is heartbreaking when Edee is at her most broken and stirring in her strongest moments (the woman who could barely swing an axe is, after a bit of time and practice, slicing through firewood like butter). Where she’s let down, then, is with the script itself, a flimsy framework for a film with much more to offer than what’s on the page. That Edee more than once concludes a scene by saying the very thing the film just spent several minutes showing us (her plaintive “This isn’t working…” in the first act, for example) goes from forgivable to annoying by the third time it happens.

Edee’s relationship with Miguel is warm and authentic; indeed, the film is at its strongest during their time together, two solitary souls with genuine (and apparently platonic) chemistry. But here the film’s script fails its characters again as it rushes into a third act reveal about Miguel (and ultimately about Edee herself) that, while it suffices as a device to bring Edee down off the mountain, feels like a manufactured plot point that never gets the space it deserves. Ultimately, Land is a more than capable vehicle for the supremely talented Robin Wright to bring a story to the screen with her own vision realized in front of and behind the camera. As a rumination on processing grief and finding one’s way back to life, the film is mostly successful at being something interesting and thoughtful; a bit more time spent at the beginning and end of the story to really build out the experience would’ve put it over the top.

Land is now playing in select theaters. Please follow CDC, health department and venue guidelines if attending indoor screenings.

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Lisa Trifone
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