Review: Land

Land (2021)
Directed by Robin Wright
Written by Jesse Chatman and Erin Dignam

Robin Wright’s directorial debut, Land, is interesting for the way it seems to be in conversation with several recent films that explore the urge to isolate in the wake of trauma. Land follows Edee, played by Wright, a middle-aged professional-seeming woman who abandons civilization to live off the grid in Wyoming. She finds a spartan hunting cabin to rent, and stockpiles it with canned goods and survival gear. Her goal is to learn to live off the land by hunting, fishing, and growing her own food. It’s a lofty ambition for someone who appears to have very little experience in the wild, but she’s determined, going so far as to hire someone to drive her car away so that she doesn’t have the option to leave except by her own two feet.   

Land premiered at Sundance around the same time that Nomadland was dominating cinematic conversation leading up to the Academy Awards, and the two movies have a lot of similarities, not only because they center on a woman who chooses to leave civilization behind but also because the female protagonist is choosing to disappear for the same reason: she’s grieving, and her sadness is so all-consuming that she can’t bear modern life. As with Nomadland’s central character, Fran, the specific circumstances of Edee’s grief are not immediately revealed. We know, from a brief meeting in a therapist’s office, that she’s mourning someone, but we don’t know who, and we don’t know the particulars. Over time, we learn more about who Edee lost, but the plot mostly focuses on how—and if—Edee will survive in the woods.

The subterranean question of Land is whether or not Edee actually wants to keep on living. The movie doesn’t give many details about Edee’s life before her flight to the wild, but with her polished appearance, she doesn’t look like someone who does a lot of camping. She also doesn’t seem to have prepared herself for her new life, beyond securing a cabin rental (or did she purchase it outright?) and buying a lot of new outdoorsy, clothing. On her first night, she’s disappointed to discover that she forgot to pack toothpaste, and you wonder if this is going to be a movie about a privileged woman’s naïve fantasy of escape. And it sort of is that movie, both consciously and unconsciously. Wright and her screenwriters are relatively clear-eyed about the money it takes to upend your life, and the arrogance of trying to live alone in the mountains without even a cell phone to call for emergencies. The man who rents Edee’s cabin to her warns her not to get rid of her vehicle, and we see a glimpse of Edee’s sister, in flashback, pleading with her not to kill herself. It’s obvious that Edee’s stubborn decision to make herself a hermit is a way to flirt with suicide. For reasons that eventually become clear, she can’t bear to live under her old name, among other people. To be alone in nature is a radical way of protecting her privacy and mental health.

This isn’t a heroic tale and I liked that Edee survives by dumb luck, rather than by her incredible will to live. I also appreciated how Edee’s ordeal is ultimately what leads her back to sanity and mental well-being. Where the storytelling faltered, for me, has to do with a relationship that Edee forms with a passing hunter, Miguel (Demián Bichir), who teaches her the skills she needs to live alone. I almost wrote “passing woodsman,” as if Edee exists in a fairy tale world, because there was something fantastical about the sudden appearance of Miguel. Without giving too much away, Edee barely gets through her first winter, and is saved by Miguel, who takes her under his wing and teaches her to hunt and fish. The two become friends in a very realistic and convincing way, but in the third act, something threatens their relationship and events begin to unfold in a way that only make sense according to screenplay tropes. The first two acts have a spare, emotional depth, but the ending felt overly simplistic, and shortchanged the friendship between Miguel and Edee that the movie spent so much time building.

Another place the movie stumbled, surprisingly, was in its depiction of the natural world. The location of Edee’s cabin is spectacularly picturesque and we get lots of establishing shots of aspens with golden leaves, sparkling streams, blue mountains, and gorgeous sunsets. The landscape is framed, held at a distance. That made sense for the beginning of the movie, when Edee first arrives and it’s all new to her. But the cinematography never really changes, and there isn’t the sense of Edee getting any closer to the natural world. Wright’s performance and body language shows us that she is more at ease, but the camera never shows us anything new, it’s just the cycle of seasons and beauty shots of the peaceful valley and pink-streaked sunset sky. We’re never down at Edee’s level, seeing things from her point of view when she’s hiking or gardening or hunting. There isn’t a sense that she’s paying closer attention to the land or learning anything about the specific plants and animals that live in her patch of wilderness. When I compare this to the movies of someone like Kelly Reichardt, who often films stories set in the American West, Edee’s relationship with the land feels much less lived-in and intimate.

Despite these flaws, I think Land is attempting to tap into something authentic in the culture, a collective sense that the noise and pace of modern life are making it impossible to grieve or navigate complicated emotions. There’s a fantasy of escape that is alive in a lot of people’s imaginations, an idea that being in nature or on the open road are the only way to get away from the net of social media. I’ve seen this theme explored in several other movies like Leave No Trace, A Short History of the Long Road, and even the goofy comedy Save Yourselves! I feel it myself, and I wonder if our breaking point is imminent, and these movies are a warning bell.  

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