In Robin Wright’s conventional, competent directorial debut, Land, the actor (who has previously shown adeptness behind the camera for various episodes of House of Cards) takes us somewhere we know a little too well. Edee (played by Wright), is an urban-dwelling woman whose grief has distanced her from society, as grief often does, making her crave solitude, choosing self-inflicted actual loneliness rather than the more uncomfortable alternative – feeling lonely when there are so many others around. So she packs up and moves to a remote cabin in the Rockies, without any way of contacting the outside world, and tries to start a new life, alone.
When Jean-Marc Vallée, Reese Witherspoon and Nick Hornby brought Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild to the screen back in 2014 (the story of an urban-dwelling woman who travels into the wilderness after a major loss – ding ding ding), there was an acute awareness of the potential familiarity and limitations of the story, of a one-character drama hinged on the restorative power of nature. So Strayed’s experience was adapted with unusual flair in an evocative and immersive film about what it feels like to really be alone, how memories can domino into one another, how a sound can lead to a flash of something horrible or sad or sweet, transforming a theoretically simple trek narrative into a distinctive tapestry of emotion and regret. In Land, Edee isn’t on the move in the way that Cheryl was, and there’s an undeniable feeling of deja vu here (strong hints of Chloé Zhao’s far superior Nomadland also do it absolutely no favours).
Wright decides to tell her story in the most straightforward way possible, without any real energy or singular style, relying solely on the barest of bones to keep it all together. As an actor she’s skilled at taking on characters whose restraint hides something more complex but there’s not enough bubbling under the surface in Edee to keep us engaged (she’s defined by her trauma and little else). We know all too well that the tragedy that led her here will be teased with flashbacks and then revealed in an emotional finale (Wright shoots flashbacks as though they belong in an indigestion commercial, which is … ineffective). She’s strong enough to make it work for a while (until we realise what little there is to come) and there is a simple sort of satisfaction to watching her grow more accomplished at living in the wild. But we remain vaguely invested because of her commitment as an actor rather than her ability as a director, a dual role made even harder by a mostly rote script from Jesse Chatma and Erin Dignam.
For a film that so often chooses quietness over noise, when dialogue does arrive, it’s discordantly heavy-handed (“If I don’t belong here, I don’t belong anywhere,” Edee says with a straight face) and, after a solid start, with the script seemingly sticking to Edee’s dogmatic isolation, a sort of semi-love interest is lazily introduced, played well enough by Demián Bichir. As Edee reaches her lowpoint, in comes a handsome, similarly aged saviour, Miguel (“I can’t take money for doing the right thing,” he tells her, halo out of shot) and their friendship-relationship edges the film into even more mechanical territory – guess who’s also suffering from a great loss?
With grief being the driving force of Edee’s character and the film at large, there’s not enough specificity in how it’s experienced or spoken about to fill the empty space, a sort of generic TV movie-level view of how someone processes loss (Tom Geens’ under-seen 2015 drama Couple in a Hole went from a similar starting point but travelled to a far more interesting place). There are stabs at something knottier, such as an all-too-brief discussion about Edee’s privilege (at one moment, Miguel tells her, “Only a person who has never been hungry would think starving is a way to die”) or the repercussions of one’s selfishness (with others forced to step in to help patch up Edee’s half-thought plan) but they don’t lead anywhere substantial or strengthen what’s essentially a character study of a character not really worth studying.
There’s stunning scenery throughout Land but it’s sort of a given when shooting in such a beautiful location and Wright never really manages to do anything especially artful with it to distinguish her work, we never really know her as a film-maker as we do as an actor – it’s something that could have been directed by anyone. It’s by no means the disaster it could have been, with history showing us too many actors who’ve tanked on the other side of the camera, but there’s just not enough here to make it a worthwhile retread through familiar territory, proof of Wright’s basic competency as a director but nothing more. At one point, Edee says to Miguel’s dog: “Looks like we’re finally getting the hang of this, huh?” Not quite yet, I’d say.