Land – Sundance 2021 Review

by Jordan King

In our present captive state of lockdowns and curfews, the urge to get away and escape is never far from our minds. In the year since the COVID-19 outbreak began, many of us have sought comfort and solace in both the news of the natural world showing signs of self-restoration in our absence, and in the hope that soon we may find ourselves immersed in nature once again, our respect and appreciation of the land around us renewed by our separation from it for so long.

Robin Wright’s directorial debut Land taps into that craving for nature’s embrace by offering an elemental meditation on grief, isolation, and how we find a way to go on in the face of tragedy. Land is the story of a woman who, wracked with grief after a tragedy whose fine details we do not learn until they no longer feel necessary, exiles herself to a mountaintop cabin in the Wyoming stretch of the Rockies. Coming not out of want, but in service of some deeper residing primal need to be isolated and alone with nature, our protagonist Edee (Wright) at first underestimates the unforgiving qualities of her surroundings, coming closer to death than to being saved in her naivety.

Freezing, starving, and suicidal, a stand-off with a bear eventually sees Edee lose consciousness.Brought back from the brink by kindly hunter Miguel (Demian Bechir) and his nurse friend Alawa (Sarah Dawn Pledge) though, this act of selfless kindness opens the door for a platonic kinship to form between Edee and Miguel as he teaches her how to handle herself in the wild and she teaches him about Star Wars. Wright and Bechir are clearly very comfortable in one another’s presence, and that shines in their blossoming friendship, one which refreshingly isn’t weighed down by a romantic element that many other stories wold have felt compelled to include. Over the course of her time in Miguel’s company, our protagonist begins to exorcise her demons and develop a symbiotic relationship with the land, a relationship which is just as meaningful as the one she shares with Miguel.

Image result for land sundance robin wright

Land is gifted with a beautiful score by Ben Sollee and Time For Three, a heavily acoustic suite that merges the film’s elemental imagery and weighty themes into a lilting orchestral ode to Mother Nature. The film also features some truly stunning cinematography from DoP Bobby Bukowski, who finds fresh ways to capture the drama and depth of the Rockies as the seasons roll over and Edee’s life begins to be coloured anew. Bukowski actually slept in a tent during the film’s shoot, a commitment that pays off in the gorgeous sunrises and awe-inspiring clear night skies that dress the frame so handsomely. This sense of musical and visual accomplishment and carefulness help keep Wright’s first feature grounded when it threatens to veer into melodrama, which is an occasional risk as Wright – unrestrained in a way we haven’t seen her before as she directs herself – goes for broke in the scenes where her trauma consumes her entirely.

Wright’s film works best when it leans into providing a critique of the expectant, self-centred belief that nature will solve our problems simply by surrounding ourselves with it. In the film’s early scenes, Edee’s lack of preparation for her exile lands her in deep trouble, and all hope of being healed here quickly is snuffed out by both nature’s destructive potential and her own self-destructive state. As the film hits its stride most confidently though, in the scenes where we see the strength gained in Edee’s developing symbiosis with her surroundings, the importance of the fact that Edee’s thriving off the land has been hard-earned is not lost on us. When Miguel asks Edee what she wants from life, she says she wants to ‘notice more’, to ‘know more’ about her surroundings, to know how to survive here. Through respect Edee gains strength and acquires fortitude, a character evolution that Wright plays believably and that Bechir facilitates with generosity and warmth, and that is not because nature has given those qualities to her, but rather because nature has given her the opportunity to acquire those qualities without the conveniences and distractions of the urban world. This commentary is one that isn’t fully developed however as the film more often leans into its more familiar and time-worn tropes, which is a shame.

With little new ground trodden over the film’s duration and a lack of pace that slips too often between being soothing and languorous, Land is not the award season darling perhaps that it may have set out to be. It is however a solid debut nevertheless, and one that benefits greatly from being able to offer viewers a palpable, sensory escape from our present isolation.

Land played as part of the Sundance Film Festival 2021

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