Robin Wright makes her feature directorial debut with Land, a film centered on Edee (Wright), a woman in obvious pain. She begins the film in therapy and very quickly exits modern life in Chicago for a remote one-room cabin in Wyoming on the border of the Shoshone National Forest. Her new home has no running water, electricity, or plumbing, and though Edee has lots of reading material about self-reliant living, she is clearly unprepared for the reality of it. Thus, she ends up starving, frostbitten, and hypothermic. Enter Miguel (Demián Bichir), a hunter who noticed the lack of smoke from her chimney. He brings with him Alawa (Sarah Dawn Pledge), a no-nonsense nurse who looks at Edee with a clear expression of, Crazy white lady. But Miguel seems to recognize a kindred spirit and offers to teach Edee the realities of off-grid living, promising “no news from the outside world”, and that after a summer of lessons, she will “never see him again”.
Working from a script by Jesse Chatham and Erin Dignam, Wright keeps Land as spare as Edee’s cabin. There is no extra fat on the bone, no extraneous dialogue or unnecessary landscape shots. The spectacular Wyoming wilderness is limited to the view outside Edee’s door, her world narrowed to this one valley. And while she does sometimes speak aloud to herself, Edee doesn’t monologue about how hard things are or how unprepared she was, it’s obvious how hard it is and that she was unprepared. Wright simply shows us Edee trying to adjust to her new life, and failing, and then learning how to succeed with Miguel. Her conversations with Miguel are sporadic and often inconsequential: 80s music, Star Wars movies, bickering over a chair. Edee and Miguel talk to each other like real human beings, they don’t tell each other information they already know for the sake up of catching up the audience, nor do they yammer on about their feelings—their grief is plain on their faces and in their stark lifestyles. No need to discuss it.
Wright even limits the amount of flashback time alluding to Edee’s past life to a few sunlit glimpses, just enough to suggest a staggering loss. When she does finally say what happened to her family, it is a moment more important, because she has reconnected with Miguel and thus the world, than it is clarification for the audience. The importance lies in the sharing at all, not in spelling out every gory detail. A lesser movie would have Edee divulge the whole story in a sobbing monologue or worse, flashback to the event itself. Wisely, Wright leaves that kind of melodrama aside. Miguel is on his own kind of journey, further along his bereavement and healing so that he can more easily share with Edee what drove him to the wilderness. A later confession compounds his revelation with a new layer of tragedy, but again, Wright deploys a light touch and stays away from melodrama. Land is effectively quiet, brutal in simple ways, not unlike the landscape in which Edee finds herself.
That landscape is lensed in harsh splendor by Bobby Bukowski, and the score from Ben Sollee and Time for Three is appropriately folksy without sounding twee. And this is the first English-language film in years—since The Hateful Eight—to give Bichir a real character to play. He is an actor of marvelous affect, but too often English-language films rely on his expressive face to do all the character building for him, it’s amazing how much more he can do when he’s got something to sink his teeth into. This is an assured feature debut from Wright, who not only grasps how to capture performance, something actor/directors are usually good at, but also how to tell an economical but impactful story, something actor/directors tend to be less good at. Land is an effective film, emotionally resonant without pushing manipulative buttons, a spare but beautiful meditation on grief and companionship.
Land is in theaters from February 12. It will be available on demand at a later date. Nothing bad happens to the dog, who is a very good boy.