Sundance 2021: The landscape overpowers the screenplay in this tale of a woman learning to live in the wilderness
Daniel Power/Focus Features
Ten years ago, actresses struggled to find substantial leading parts. Today, they’re increasingly creating their own. “Land” doesn’t just give Robin Wright an enormous canvas on which to prove herself behind the camera, it also offers us another chance to admire her work in front of it.
In her feature directorial debut, Wright plays Edee Holzer, a woman clearly shattered from some overwhelmingly enormous tragedy. As the film begins, she is already leaving her former life behind by purchasing an isolated cabin on a Wyoming mountain, tossing her cell phone in the trash and having her truck towed away as soon as she arrives.
These choices are so irrational that one might assume she’s chosen a spot to conclude her pain. But she’s also brought the sorts of books and camping supplies a city dweller might use to try and survive the unknown. The mountain, of course, merely mocks her. An angry bear destroys her supplies, books won’t trap her food, and she can’t get much water by dipping some plastic bottles in a swift-moving river.
Regardless of her original intentions, her mission is built on madness. And when she finally collapses out of hunger and hypothermia (wood chopping also turns out to be much harder than she imagined), it seems the end is near.
Her luck turns when a kind stranger checks in on her. Soft-spoken local Miguel (Demián Bichir, “A Better Life”) stops by just in time to save Edee, not only physically but spiritually. Though she tries to warn him off — she doesn’t want anything to do with humanity anymore — he gives her just enough space to heal. Over the next few seasons, he teaches her how to live with the land rather than fight against it.
If that sounds trite, well — Jesse Chatham and Erin Dignam’s script is not strong on subtlety. Indeed, its lack of depth feels strikingly at odds with an otherwise refined film. The characters are barely sketched, with supporting turns from Sarah Dawn Pledge and Kim Dickens written down to nearly nothing. Miguel has plenty of screen time, but he suffers from being a cliché; even Edee calls him Yoda for his laconic but film-friendly wisdom.
Chatham and Dignam may have felt that Edee’s pain is so deep that a backstory would be extraneous. And Wright is able to delve further into Edee’s emotions, approaching her sense of loss — and lost sense of self — with moving and understated empathy. But since Miguel never feels like a real person, and Edee is so contained, we need more.
We get it from cinematographer Bobby Bukowski, who approaches the setting with evident reverence. (The movie was shot on Moose Mountain in Alberta, Canada, and could reasonably be touted by their tourism bureau.) He often keeps a respectful distance, following Edee through trees and from afar as though he doesn’t want to disturb her, either. But this gives him room to take in those stunning vistas, as they shift from one mercurial season to the next. Beautiful as the mountain is, Edee never knows what new surprise will greet her each day. It might be a sunrise and a field of wildflowers. Or it could be a snowstorm and an ornery animal.
The movie is so visually striking, it’s no surprise that Wright worked with two top editors, Anne McCabe (“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”) and Mikkel E.G. Nielsen (“Sound of Metal”). The strings-heavy score from composers Ben Sollee and Time for Three also offers effective support, as it fluctuates in discreet unison with Edee’s experiences.
It would be nice to see Wright work from a stronger script next time, but she rises above the limitations admirably. And for anyone unable to leave the confines of their own home or neighborhood right now, “Land” offers simple lessons and stunning landscapes that may feel like a welcome balm.
“Land” opens in theaters Feb. 12.
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