Land, review: a grieving Robin Wright takes to the hills, but forgets to bring a plot

Robin Wright both stars in and directs Land - Sundance
Robin Wright both stars in and directs Land - Sundance
  • Dir: Robin Wright. Cast: Robin Wright, Demián Bichir, Kim Dickens. Cert 12A, 89 mins

When a well-known actor makes their directing debut and appears in almost every scene, you would hope to come out knowing a little more about them than you did going in. Perhaps the main problem with Land, Robin Wright’s innocuous tale of a woman braving out her bereavement in the Wyoming mountains, is that your perception of Wright is wholly unaltered from start to finish.

The careworn intelligence and emotional fatigue she can project shine through as they always do, and there’s not a thing wrong with her performance. But as Edee Mathis chops wood, huddles in her cabin and periodically grieves, Wright is playing a backstory and a state of hardship, not a character you could single out in any other respect among the women she’s portrayed.

Until the very end, we don’t know what’s happened to the husband and son Edee used to have – there are photos tucked away in a shoebox, of them smiling and fishing in happier times. Whatever this tragedy might have been, she can’t face her old life in Chicago, unimpressed by anything therapy is doing for her: she craves not having to answer to that, or to anyone. The last call she gets, before tossing her phone in a bin mid-cross-country trip, is from her sister (Kim Dickens), and it goes unanswered.

In seeking to go off-grid, Edee has good company in recent films. She’s running away to recentre herself like Cheryl Strayed in Wild (2014), severing the social umbilical cord like the father-daughter pair in Leave No Trace (2018). She’s in a (far) lesser Nomadland. But there’s no wanderlust in her soul, so much as a Thoreauvian craving for inner peace. And so, after soon arriving at the Innisfree-like cabin she’s earmarked as her new home, we simply stay put. Narratively speaking, off-grid hardly applies – the film cleaves to a lockstep structure of emotional growth, as if laying down guy-ropes.

Edee will hit rock bottom, probably around 25–30 minutes in, and climb her way back slowly to a state of grace. There will be campfires, al fresco baths and crying jags. Other than a marauding bear which barges in to make a mess of her place, the only major figure to impose on this hermitage is Demián Bichir’s Miguel, a bearded local hunter who finds Edee frozen half to death on the cabin floor, then takes her under his wing.

He trains her rifle-sights on deer, this cowboy Samaritan, and shows her how to trap squirrels. She’s basically Sandra Bullock in Gravity, and he’s George Clooney, giving her all the survival tips she couldn’t function without. She calls him Yoda, a reference he doesn’t understand.

Wright and Bichir exude enough sincere charisma to make these two appealing company, but the thuddingly sober script, by Jesse Chatham and Erin Dignam, hasn’t given either of them a lot to work with. One or two half-humourous beats suggest neither character has ever delivered a successful joke. We learn before long that Miguel has a near-identikit sorrow in his own past, so that’s their kinship neatly explained with a wreath on top. The smiling-through-tears redemption arc needs taking out of mothballs.

From early on, it’s obvious the film is going to have scenery instead of momentum – and the scenery, at the very least, is first-class. Time passes resplendently as the camera feasts on this valley’s contours, filling the screen with all these dazzling yellow leaves and snow-capped peaks. The cinematographer, Bobby Bukowski (Time Out of Mind), is well-qualified. But this is more of a NatGeo Traveller photoshoot than a subtle dramatic showcase. Icicles sparkle from the eaves in the dawn light. There’s one glorious sunset that the film, unless I was very much mistaken, cheats and uses twice. Land will give you a craving to be in the great outdoors, maybe before it’s even over.

In cinemas on Friday