A film review by Craig J. Koban May 25, 2021

LAND jjj

2021, R, 88 mins

Robin Wright as Edee  /  Demian Bichir as Miguel  /  Kim Dickens as Emma

Directed by Robin Wright  /  Written by Jesse Chatham and Erin Dignam

LAND tells a story that initially seems to be painted with familiar genre strokes, only to slowly and surely reveal itself to be uncommonly authentic and raw in the manner that it deals with isolation, grief, and ultimately salvation.  

It tells the tale of a big city middle aged woman that is devastated by gut wrenching personal tragedy and subsequent depression, so much so that she decides to completely abandon her life and flees into the wilderness to a remote cabin to spend her days fending for herself and away from humanity in general.  LAND features Robin Wright both in front of and behind the camera in her feature film directorial debut (after spending time sinking her teeth into helming episodes of Netflix's HOUSE OF CARDS).  Even though the film feels a bit unfinished in places and doesn't reach a satisfying sense of earned closure, Wright's rookie effort is undeniably potent with its character beats and themes of abandoning modern civilization for the primitive wild.  That, and LAND is one of the most sumptuously shot films that I've seen this year thus far. 

Wright is reliably superb here playing Edee, who's going through an emotional crisis that's dangerously teetering towards suicidal tendencies.  Her sister in Emma (Kim Dickens) tries as she can to provide some form of emotional support, but seems hopelessly unable to break through to her sibling in any meaningful manner.  Even Edee's attempts to seek help from a therapist are - at least in her mind - crushing failures, mostly stemming from the fact that, by her own admission, she just can't stomach the thought of being around anyone moving forward.  Edee feels hopelessly trapped in the city, so she decides to abandon everything but the basic necessities required to live and heads out to the most remote part of Wyoming wilderness to a cabin in the mountains that's about as far away from metropolis life as it gets.  She wants to essentially be away from anything that once had meaning to her.  Even when the guide gets her to her remote destination and offers her basic tips for survival, she steadfastly refuses them.  She literally has no plan upon arrival.  Hell, she's never hunted, trapped and skinned food, started a fire, etc. in her life.  And she barely has enough supplies to get her through the winter to come. 

A lion's share of LAND hones in on Edee's sometimes pathetic attempts to reconnect to the outdoors (that she once happily enjoyed with the company of loved ones back in the day, which is reiterated in the film's multiple sprinkled in flashbacks) while trying to learn how to live apart from modern conveniences.  She's a greenhorn when it comes to backwoods living, and when she's not staving off hunger she has to deal with a nightmarish threat of an equally ravenous bear that nearly kills her while rampaging its way through the cabin and destroying what little is left of her supplies.  We seen snippets and hints here and there from her past as to what possibly might have tipped her mentally over, but the film wisely doesn't reveal everything too soon.  When Edee's outdoor struggles begin to take their ravaging toll on her mind, body, and spirit, she's discovered and quickly befriended by a local named Miguel (Demian Bichir), who helps nurse her back to health while giving her proper survival lessons in order for her to fully live on her own and on her own terms.  The more time Edee spends with this kind stranger the closer their friendship becomes, which begins to make her revaluate her whole lonely mission to indefinitely segregate herself from people. 



One of the many simply pleasures of LAND is how well that Wright - both as an actress and director - invests in the central relationship contained within between the deeply disillusioned Edee and the kindly Miguel, and it's relieving to see how their bond never becomes a romantic or sexual one.  It's really a union based on practicality, with Edee growing to realize that she'll need Miguel's "Yoda-like" outdoorsmen tutelage to allow for her to acclimate herself to the wild more fully.  Miguel is a more crucial figure of influence for Edee simply because he and his nurse friend (Sarah Dawn Pledge) saved her from certain death and starvation, and did so because it was the right thing to do.  Compellingly, they reach a mutual agreement about their time together moving forward: He will guide her in the ways of the wild and will do so by not telling her anything of the outside world...like...nothing.  Once she's set, he will leave her alone at her request.  As LAND progresses and these two souls connect more it becomes clear that both are going through suffering (in one form or another) and, in the process, learn to value each other's company as a coping mechanism.  It's pretty rare for dramas these days to portray middle aged male/female friendships in an realistically platonic manner the way LAND does here. 

Wright also has a stupendously competent visual eye as a new director as well, and her collaboration with cinematographer Bobby Bukowski manages to take the eye popping Canadian locations (flawlessly and credibly doubling for Wyoming) and and covey this setting for what it is: Ruggedly intimidating while simultaneously being breathtakingly gorgeous.  LAND makes the wilderness setting feel both suitably intense and picturesque as a secondary character in itself, and one that serves up as a lushly inviting conduit for a spiritual makeover for Edee, but one that's not without inherent dangers.  There's absolute beauty to be had here, but that masks the multitude of things that can all conspire together to kill Edee if not respected or left unchecked.  As a fully rendered and non-romanticized portrait of the outdoor world and all of its intriguing and sometimes punishing contradictions, LAND is an atypically assured work and confident vision. 

It's noteworthy too that LAND doesn't get too overwhelmed with dialogue and instead lets the images and non-verbal performances win out in the end (one of the film's inherent weaknesses, ironically enough, is when the screenplay by Jesse Chatham and Erin Dignam provides some eye-rolling pronouncements from its character that feel too on the nose, like when Edee declares at one point, "If I don't belong here, I don't belong anywhere!"). Thankfully, Wright respects the quieter dignity that occurs when characters just interact with one another and say more when saying little.  This is all guided by Wright and Bichir's effectively dialed in performances and unforced and natural chemistry that they share on screen.  Bichir has this unassuming manner of giving his characters a sense of soulful gravitas in the most modest manner, and Wright is understatedly strong at portraying this deeply troubled woman that seems to be at a breaking point that's beyond rehabilitation and redemption, but is able to find it in the most unexpected ways.   

This all culminates, I think, with the ultimate and underlining theme of LAND, that of connection, which is largest key to survival and getting to a better place in life after dealing with unspeakable hardship.  Edee starts the film as one that is convinced that complete isolation from humanity and the city is the key to her moving one, but slowly begins to see the error of her ways on a journey of self-discovery and healing.  She does find what's she's looking for in the wild, just not in the manner she was hoping for or expecting.  LAND begins on such a morose note, but then becomes paradoxically moving and uplifting in the way its main character changes via her new surroundings.  I would have appreciated the film to be a little longer (it's barely 90 minutes) and it does come off like its trying to rush itself towards its ending that doesn't entirely work for me, but there's so much to admire in Wright's first film, especially when one sees what a bright future she has as a director.   

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