The directors’ circle has a new name! Robin Wright makes a soul-stirring debut with Land. After helming a handful of episodes for House of Cards, her choice for a first feature is a smart one. Sharply observed, delicately acted, and beautifully realised, Land is an intimate portrait of a woman’s transformation. Wright pulls double duty and stars as Edee Mathis, a mother who heads to the hills amid her grief. High atop the mountains—Alberta doubling for Wyoming—Land finds an invigorating breath of fresh air. Here’s that deep, revitalising dose of Rocky Mountain air one hoped to find at Sundance.
Land’s opening moments alone assure a viewer that Wright has a comfortable hold on her craft. Wright gives us dark, fleeting images of a woman suffocating, nearly drowning in her pain after losing her family. Then there’s an immediate sense of release and catharsis as Edee decides to take hold of her life. Land comes up for air as Edee heads into her truck and escapes town. She drives through her mountain town, up the snowy hills, and into the light. As Bruce Springsteen’s I’m on Fire plays in an acoustic cover by The Staves and the cutting perfectly matches the downbeats of the mellow, freeing music, Land begins with the sense of a great weight being lifted. Within five brief, captivating minutes, Land takes us on a journey of a soul being healed.
A Rocky Mountain High
Arriving atop the mountain at a cabin that real estate agents call “a fixer-upper,” Edee gives a hired hand her car keys and asks him to drive away. She’s alone with no plans—or means—to return to her old life. Land imagines what happens when one person goes off the grid to start fresh. Edee chops her own wood (with difficulty), fetches her own water, and rations her supplies. High in the open air, a beautiful view offers a sunset that resuscitates her heart. The change in scenery is palpably therapeutic. However, Edee’s view of starting fresh is short lived and running away from her problems is unrealistic. Her naïveté catches up with her. When the elements become harsher and unexpected twists of fate upend her plans, she quickly comes closer to death than she was when she ran away.
Wright, through a mostly silent and physical performance, sheds all vanity as she pummels through Edee’s despair. Land puts Edee on a journey through her grief as she confronts painful memories. These appear as jarring visceral flashbacks in which Edee and her sister (a memorable Kim Dickens) try to cope with her sense of loss. These dark moments sting in the fleeting whirlwind that transpires as Edee expels the pain from her body as if rejuvenated from a sweat lodge. Land rejects the romantic notion that one’s troubles can be resolved simply by escaping them. Edee finds strength when she learns to trust again and form new relationships with other people, exposing herself to the possibility of further pain.
Key to Edee’s lesson on survival is the arrival of a local hunter (Demián Bichir). They form a reluctant, hesitant friendship as he comes to Edee’s aid. However, as any person surviving the isolating times of COVID-19 can appreciate, human connection nourishes a starved soul. Wright and Bichir have a natural relationship as the hunter helps Edee find herself anew.
Despite being in production long before COVID, Land, much like George Clooney’s The Midnight Sky in which Bichir also appears, gains extra resonance upon its premiere. Its portrait of the necessity of human interaction strikes a poignant chord. Edee’s soul-shattering hell becomes more relatable in her isolation as Land depicts a journey we are all on in our own way. The process of starting over when one’s life has been totally and unexpectedly rocked is not easy. Yet Land’s powerful character study reminds us that humans are inherently social beings. We get through difficult times with helping hands and shoulders to cry on.
Wright and cinematographer Bobby Bukowski effectively convey this sense of emerging from darkness through Land’s vivid images. The film favours natural light, as any good mountain movie should. The warmth and coldness of the light offers an easy window into Edee’s emotional state. Similarly, the cabin’s enclosures smartly contrast with the freeing serenity of the landscaping, emphasizing the perils of forced isolation.
“The Wilderness of Grief”
Harnessing the sparse yet substantial range of elements at her disposal, Wright’s debut is strikingly cinematic. The mountains of Land are steeped in terrifying, metaphorical beauty. Wright feels firmly in in her element as both an actor and director. One could say that a feature debut that relies on one’s own performance is a cheat, but Wright makes it look easy. It’s actually quite brave. What’s on display is both an actor’s intuition and a natural cinematic sense for composition and spatial relations. The latter is especially striking in conveying Edee’s despair.
Land is one of those films that just grabs you emotionally, mentally, and, arguably, physically. I found myself so captivated that I immediately replayed it upon completion. The last time I did that was with Ida, another delicately composed and introspective exploration of moving forward in the aftermath of grief.
Perhaps a more fitting comparison for Land than Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida is Jean-Marc Vallée’s Wild. Both films are journeys, as Cheryl Strayed would say, through the “wildness of grief.” Like Wild was for Reese Witherspoon, Land is an outstanding star vehicle for Wright. As Wild proved such a breakthrough for Vallée in Hollywood as a director, Land marks Wright as a natural behind the camera in an accomplished debut. That she pulled off both feats, however, makes Land an early favourite for Sundance and, undoubtedly, the year.