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‘Land’ Review: Robin Wright the director lets down Robin Wright the actor

The fact that Wright shot her directorial debut in less than a month earns her a bit of goodwill, but a wholly unremarkable screenplay extinguishes it.
Credit: Focus Features

[[Note: When "Land" releases in the U.S., it will largely be at indoor movie theaters during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. While the purpose of this review goes deeper than binary recommendation to discuss the film's merits as an artistic work in context of its time, we encourage our readers to continue exercising the latest safety guidelines from health authorities and consider them if and when you may decide to visit the cinema to watch this movie.]]

The new drama “Land” finds the venerable Robin Wright boldly treading into unknown territory to contend with new challenges in more ways than one, and at the project’s center is a self-referential awareness that I’m sure its star must appreciate to a certain extent. Having spent the better part of the last half-decade popping up in high-profile blockbusters and helping to tug Netflix’s “House of Cards” across the finish line sans Spacey, “Land” sees the accomplished actress in the director’s chair of a feature film for the first time—settling into the role with perhaps the same quiet gung-ho spirit being emanated from her on-screen character, Edee, whose efforts to cope with an ambiguous recent tragedy have stalled.

As does her introduction to the unforgiving wilderness, where “Land” – written by Jesse Chatham and Erin Dignam – puts its protagonist through the wringer in every obvious way that you’re probably envisioning in your head right now. Plastic jugs escape down strong river currents while Edee tries to get water. Painful blisters sprout on her hands after she clumsily mishandles the ax chopping wood. The chorus of wildlife and chit-chit-chittering of creatures roaming around outside keeps her fearfully up at night. Long, long, loooong before Edee screams regret into Canada’s chilly mountain air (which, to be clear, happens roughly at the 20-minute mark), we’ve already settled with her unpreparedness. How could we not? Slotting itself firmly alongside 2014’s “Wild” and 2020’s “Nomadland” as another entry in the subgenre of women forging into nature to find healing, “Land” is an exasperatingly formulaic product, its script far too redundant for even the mystery of Edee’s mourning to resonate. The result is metatext that stretches far wider than Wright intends for it to—turns out she’s just as unequipped as Edee to locate some semblance of grace.

"Land” may end up being just as blandly generic as its title suggests, but it’s at least smart enough to recognize it isn’t breaking new narrative ground. The opening shot finds an emotionally numbed Edee observing the falling sands of an hourglass while insisting to a therapist (played by Kim Dickens) that what’s best for her at that moment is to grieve alone. To grieve what alone is a question that, like clockwork, we’re expected to ask—rest assured, “Land” will begin to tease the particulars of her mourning before long, so much as we can consider recurring hallucinations of a handsome man and young boy wistfully smiling at a hollow-faced Edee “teasing.” Early and often do the narrative machinations of Chatham and Dignam’s screenplay awkwardly grind up against themselves; for as much as “Land” respects its audience enough to merely imply why Edee’s out here, it’s tiresomely blunt in depicting just how much of a Bear Grylls’s resourcefulness she doesn't have.

For that matter, and more importantly, Edee doesn’t have the captivating pull of a Cheryl Strayed, either. A brief flashback showing her to have had suicidal inclinations pre-self-exile adds urgency to what’s happening in the present, but there’s no positioning the audience so that we can feel the full weight of what’s bearing down on Edee’s soul. Part of that is on the flat script, but part of it is also on Wright the Director, who betrays Wright the Actor by blueprinting the pathos in moments of self-confrontation so rigidly structured that emotions are never allowed to fully bloom. But you can’t blueprint heartbreak with a screenplay like this, not when the beats are so maddeningly familiar yet jarringly rendered that the emotional stakes become even more vital in maintaining our investment. It’s hard, though, to invest in a movie that doesn’t show many signs of investing in itself.

It’s hard to invest in a movie that feels so ambiguous yet so clear-cut.

It’s hard to invest in a movie that doesn’t give more dramatic oxygen to scenes turning blue from a lack of it.

It’s hard to invest in a movie whose embers of conflict are smothered before they ever become a flame.

It’s hard to invest in a movie that’s this choppily edited while ostensibly endeavoring to achieve something of a spiritual listlessness.

It’s hard to invest in a movie that turns, with the snap-quickness of a howling winter gust, into a horror-contoured survivalist tale, only to transform just as quickly into a honeydewy two-hander with Demián Bichir once his expert outdoorsman character, Miguel, and a deus ex nurse enters the picture just in time to save Edee from nearly freezing to death. The writing doesn’t improve very much from here on out (“We need to honor her wish!” Miguel says about a woman he hasn’t shared three words with), but Bichir’s mere presence gives “Land” some of the humanity it’s desperately seeking.

Credit: Focus Features

The early days of this new friendship make up the film’s most memorable scenes; Wright the Actor is given more to do than grunt, gasp or sigh, and Bichir’s natural benevolence is so sturdy that it practically forces Wright the Director to expand certain moments of poignant reconciliation where before they would be constricted. Imagine that: A film about opening oneself up in order to move forward is at its momentary best when it organically opens itself up, instead of it being painfully obvious that “Land” was shot in just 29 days, as Wright has said in interviews.

The writing feels equally as rushed when that elusive natural pacing worthy of the movie’s vast open environments relinquishes control back to shabby plotting. “Land” closes by closing itself off from potential for meaningful interpretation, ending on a note of happenstance between Edee and Miguel that feels uncomfortably staged to such a degree that we end up wishing Wright had stopped rolling the cameras on Day 25 or Day 26. I must at least tip my hat to her for pulling off so quick a shoot while attempting to find her directorial voice on the fly. But I also look forward to when that voice has, quite literally, more space on the schedule to fully fill its lungs before speaking.

"Land" is rated PG-13 for thematic content, brief strong language and partial nudity. It opens in theaters Friday. 

Starring: Robin Wright, Demián Bichir, Sarah Dawn Pledge and Kim Dickens

Directed by Robin Wright



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