Early in Robin Wright’s “Land,” as her Edie (Wright) trucks out to middle-of-nowhere Wyoming, a brief flash of fear passes over the filmmaker and star’s face. For a moment, it seems, even Edie is terrified at the desolation of the world around her, of the terrible isolation she has prescribed for herself. It doesn’t go any further than that, just one small look, but it hints at a more honest film buried underneath a too-familiar grief drama. While Wright, making her feature directorial debut with tough material, exhibits an appealing unfussiness, so much of “Land” is painful not for its subject matter, but because of its predictability.
Wright, working off a slim screenplay from Jesse Chatham and Erin Dignam — the film is Chatham’s first credit, but Dignam previously directed Wright in early ’90s offerings “Loved” and “Denial” — doesn’t waste much time offering up her broken Edie. The film opens with a pair of scenes that showcase just how far gone she is, first telling a well-meaning therapist that “it’s really difficult to be around people, because they just want me to be better,” before threatening suicide in front of her horrified sister (an underutilized Kim Dickens).
An observation from said therapist, however, seems to take accidental root: if Edie isn’t around people, she’s “alone with her pain.” Maybe that’s how she wants it. Soon enough, Edie alights for off-the-grid Wyoming, taking up residence in a dilapidated cabin tucked into a spread of hunting grounds, far away from the civilized life that has thus far hurt her so badly. There’s no mistaking that Edie’s pain is real, and a series of flashbacks and happy hallucinations make plain what (and who) she has lost to push her to this moment. And yet, like so many of the film’s most interesting choices, these sequences are picked up and dropped, never to be seen again.
Edie isn’t really suited for country life — even a discomfort as benign as brushing with straight baking soda makes her grimace, and that’s before the wild animals and the blizzards and the filthy outhouse. She does, however, try to make a go of it, and the film’s first act, beset with sequences of Edie’s failures, showcase the film’s (and its director’s) strengths. Set against stunning scenery (the film shot in Canada, and save for a few shoddy bits of CGI, fully immerses its audience in the landscape) and focused on a stripped-down performance from Wright, “Land” seems to be set on delivering a new sort of survival story. Until it tips straight into a familiar grief drama.
Perhaps Edie’s predilection for collapsing on the ground in fits of grief — both in flashbacks and in her current, increasingly dire situation — rankle, a trope-laden way to clue people into the obvious fact that she’s suffering. As Edie’s cabin life grows tougher by the day, Wright screams to no one (besides, of course, an audience that will be tempted to heartily agree) that “THIS ISN’T WORKING!” No, it isn’t, even if the attempts made by the filmmaker and star are admirable enough. The problem: Wright hedges when she should be digging deeper into what’s compelling about a woman battling her demons alone. Mainly that she’s alone.
Edie is stiff with people, not cold or cruel, just stiff. She’s hellbent on not being defined by her grief, but Chatham and Dignam’s script is loath to provide any other details about her life before all this, save for the tragedy that changed her (and when those details are revealed, they don’t feel necessary so much as shocking and a little cheap). Edie is nothing but a vessel for her pain, and while her initial idea to work through it — or not — alone is a compelling one, it’s not exactly conducive to rapid forward motion. Eventually, even for a film ostensibly set around a solitary woman and her journey, someone else is going to have to come in to move things along.
Enter Demián Bichir, the exact kind of soothing, patient presence that a film like “Land” needs, even if his sudden appearance during Edie’s darkest hour — “you were in my path,” he shrugs — feels like the worst kind of storytelling. Surely if she’s to heal, Edie is going to need to get right with the rest of human population, but Miguel’s injection in her life, all calm smiles and adoration for Tears for Fears, is false and fantastical. It’s a shortcut through pain, an easy bow on Edie’s tragedy, and the addition of Miguel’s own troubles only ever feels like a way to distract from how pat it all is.
Not that there’s not pleasure to be found in watching the two interact, as Miguel teaches Edie how to hunt, offers her the kind of gentle conversation she’s been so lacking, and offers his own tale of woe. And yet he’s never more than a device, a cog in the plodding machine that is “Land.” Mourning takes all shapes, grief has no timeline, and pain is as personal, but “Land” grapples so uneasily with such heady topics that the result is the total absence of new insights. It is, for lack of a better word, a flat “Land.”
“Land” premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival in the Premieres section. Focus Features will release it in theaters on Friday, February 12.