'Land': Robin Wright Directs Herself Through A Familiar Wilderness Grieving Process [Sundance Review]

Take the nomad out of “Nomadland,” and you’re left with “Land,” Robin Wright‘s feature-directing debut (she previously directed 10 episodes of “House of Cards“), in which she also stars, as a grieving woman who, somewhat ironically given the film bows in the era of mandatory isolation, moves way up into the mountains “to get away from people.” Problem is, take the nomadic element out of “Nomadland” (she moves only once and has done with it) and you’re also left with a less interesting, much more obvious movie, in which not only are we not introduced to a radically different way of living, we’re ultimately confirmed in our safest and most simplistic assumptions about how we live right now. Despite some pretty vistas and a typically watchable performance from Wright, “Land” proffers rather too tidy a reiteration of things the movies taught us long ago, about how embracing life means embracing pain and how it’s only through connecting to others that we can truly know ourselves. 

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It’s disappointing because its first half promises something quite a bit weirder as Edee (Wright) still numbed and reeling from the deaths of her husband and child, cashes out her city life, ditches her phone, and buys a deserted shack on an inaccessible Wyoming mountainside. The cabin is neglected and dingy, it has no electricity, and its spectacular view, out across sometimes snow-capped peaks, down forested slopes to a wide clear river replete with fish, contains no other human structure except the ramshackle outhouse where flies circle the toilet bowl. Undaunted, Edee unpacks her meager belongings, including a largely canned food supply and sends the U-haul and the rental car away again, so she has no easy means of contact with civilization. She settles in for sleepless nights full of alarming animal noises, and empty days schlepping water up from the river and being really shit at chopping wood. 

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For a time, the film is wordless as, with the everyday business of her survival, Edee tries to distract herself from the everyday emptiness of her life. This is the “All is Lost“- type film that initially “Land” teases, a sinewy solo survival thriller, before then suggesting a more interior, psychodramatic approach as she starts to see her husband and son running alongside her through the forest or downstream fishing from the same bank. Then winter comes, and there’s a bear attack, which robs her of most of her food, and a strangely placed drone shot that, floating over the cabin accompanied by a particularly ominous stretch of Ben Sollee‘s score, even hints at nature-horror. 

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But, no. Edee’s profound lack of Bear Ghylls savvy sees her on the verge of starving to death, when she is discovered by Miguel (Demian Bichir) and nursed back to health. Through her connection to him, which is hesitant and suspicious at first before deepening into a genuine friendship, Edee, almost against her will, becomes fractionally more interested in life, and we become much less interested in “Land.”

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Wright’s directorial skills are not in doubt. Bobby Bukowski‘s photography makes the most of both vast outdoor panoramas – sweeping snowscapes, bursting meadows, dense crackling woods – and of more intimate moments, like firelit conversations silhouetted against an evening sky or the pioneer poetry of sunshine spilling in between the slats of the cabin’s wall. But Wright is in general careful not to overdo the splendor. Her Edee is unmade up and adorned in only the most practical sweaters and woolly hats (not like there’s an outfit invented that could dent that resilient, strong-jawed beauty of hers). Bichir is gruffly simpatico but also just a regular guy, with boots and warm jackets and a matter-of-fact kindliness that is attractive without suggesting anything more than the platonic. (Still, maybe it’s just age or shifting pandemic priorities, but you can stuff your “John Cusack with a boom box playing Peter Gabriel on my lawn,” and give me “Demian Bichir on my porch warbling Tears for Fears holding a box of mankind’s finest culinary innovation – instant ramen” any day.)

But though the presentation is carefully un-grandiose and the performances grounded, for all the film is about raw, unyielding grief and the harshness of nature when it’s treated as a backdrop for your issues and not the ragged, snarling, unforgiving monster it can be, “Land” has no truck with ugliness. The camera turns almost prudishly away from showing us anything visceral – quite literally when Edee kills her first deer and the presumably gory process of gutting and skinning it is politely framed just out of view. The back-to-nature healing process, the film suggests, is protracted, difficult, and painful, but our sensibilities are spared a good long look at its mess. 

This squeamishness extends into the narrative, especially towards the end, when we have to be shown that Edee’s experiment was a success, that this period of isolation and increased self-sufficiency has done its work and can be moved on from. In this way “Land,” which at one point felt a little like “Into the Wild” actually recalls “Wild” – there’s even an exchange where Edee confesses to sometimes being lonely, but not as lonely as she’d be “back there,” which if memories serve, echoes almost verbatim a passage in the Reese Witherspoon movie. And so whatever else the film may be at times, its story moves implacably from chaotic to ordered, things put back in their right place at last.

It’s maybe a symptom of ongoing pandemic anomie that neat resolutions grate more than they used to. Or perhaps it’s just the nature of the film’s tearjerker finale, which, while effective at jerking those tears, might also cause a fit of hiccups when you actually think on the sentimental overkill of what you’re crying about. That might be a bit harsh, given the obviously sincere intentions of everyone concerned, and the steady underplaying of both Wright and Bichir, but either way, the engineered uplift of its final moments cannot help but feel like a false dawn, albeit one that breaks prettily, over far-off, snow-capped mountains. [B-]

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