Nearly four decades into a storied career as an actor, Robin Wright makes her directorial debut with Land, a mediocre drama about grief and isolation. So, why does it annoy me so much?
Wright helms and headlines Land, portraying Edee Mathis, whose mourning has pushed her to suicidal ideation before driving her to a remote cabin in the Wyoming mountains, where she can suffer in solitude. Why Edde grieves is swiftly revealed in flashbacks of happier times, where an affectionate husband and frolicking son filled her life with joy. Now, she is alone, left to share her sob story with a stoic therapist and a devoted sister (Kim Dickens) who begs her not to end her life. Why Eddie decides to move to the middle of nowhere is not so clear. It’s not as if she knows how to hunt, set traps, or garden for food. Without a car or cell phone of her own, she’s essentially trapped herself here. So, when disaster strikes, she has no hope for help. Thankfully, she can rely on the kindness of strangers.
On the brink of death, Edee is rescued by a Good Samaritan named Miguel (Demián Bichir), who takes her in, warms her up, gives her food, then teaches her how to actually survive in this environment. Over the course of months, Miguel brings Edee on hunting trips and out of her shell. The two become friends, even as Edee still cringes at any mention of the wider world. But when Miguel goes away for a while, she realizes she misses him. This snowballs the slow-paced plot into a bumbling third act that barrels into an abruptly emotional climax, which feels cheap and cloying. Yet, this is not what annoys me about Land.
For decades, Wright starred in a slew of movies, telling all kinds of stories. What was it about this story that finally inspired her to make her own? Perhaps obsessed-with-youth Hollywood isn’t offering the 54-year-old actress lead roles that intrigue her. Perhaps the script by Jesse Chatham and Erin Dignam enticed, as it offers the chance to perform in silence and tear-jerking dialogue. As the still above suggests, Wright’s movie has lots of moments where she mutely reacts to the wonders and roughness of the wilderness around her. Yet being alone doesn’t keep Edee from a very vocal meltdown where she bellows to no one, “It’s not working! It’s not working! It’s not working!” Then, she melts to the floor in a sobbing puddle of histrionics. Or perhaps Wright wanted to be immortalized as a natural beauty, celebrated alongside so much glorious nature.
Hollywood’s misogyny might scoff at the idea that an older woman in little-to-no makeup can be a stunner. However, cinematographer Bobby Bukowski captures Wright’s strong jaw, penetrating stare, and flawless skin as a wonder, using unblinking concentration and a color palette that is warm and awe-striking. The world around her explodes in intense hues: green pastures, yellow autumn leaves, blue night skies. Against these splendors, the pink flush of her cheeks is complimented as is the sparkle in her eyes. All of this makes Land an absolutely gorgeous film from start to finish. But man, this story stinks of intense and oblivious privilege.
Edee is a city-dweller, who has a supportive family and finances enough to afford therapy and a huge swath of land in the mountains. Her lack of phone and car is not because she can’t afford them, but because she doesn’t want them. Her retreat may be a way to escape her brain by focusing intensely on the constant grind of surviving. But also present—yet unexplored—is her hubris, born from being a rich white lady. Early on, she is warned by a local that these “tribal lands” are tough country, and that she shouldn’t live here without a way to call for help. She shrugs this off, then expresses frustration when her garden is gobbled up by animals and cowers in terror when a bear traps her in her outhouse. Edee has no plan for such failures. Maybe this was always a subconscious route to suicide? But then comes Miguel, a race-bent Magical N*gro, whose role is to show the sad white protagonist how to better herself. Because of his incredible patience and compassion and skills, she will flourish. Because of his tragedy, she can feel better about her own. Gross.
At first glance, Land seems a drama that might be compared to Wild, where an actress sinks her teeth into a less glamorous role to re-establish her range. Yet Wright doesn’t have a great handle on how to create a compelling balance of internal trauma and external expression, turning Edee into a trite caricature of pretty suffering. Then, the story unfurls in a way where whiteness is alarmingly overlooked, even as a problematic trope is trotted out. In this thankless role, Bichir offers a tender performance. Still, he deserves better than being the tragic POC who exists to give the white lady feels.
In the end, the best I can say about Land is it sure is pretty.
Land played made its world premiere at Sundance 2021. It will come to theaters on February 12.