Robin Wright’s assured directorial debut plays like a companion piece to Nomadland – a woman escaping the unbearable crush of grief and well-intentioned sympathy by turning to the outdoors and the numbing succour of self-sufficiency – and that’s no bad thing.
Opening with bereavement counselling between a therapist and Edee (Wright) who has suffered devastating loss, it’s clear we’re observing a woman hurting so much that she no longer knows how to exist. “Why am I still here?” she cries on her helpless sister’s shoulder and Edee’s particular answer to the gnawing sorrow is soon revealed in a bucolic title card sequence as she hooks up a U-Haul trailer and heads west from urban Chicago to the wilds of Wyoming.
Tossing her phone in a bin and buying a remote shack with no running water or power, Edee is soon adrift and off-the-grid in glorious, relentless nature, without a car or means of communication. But as chilly, manageable autumn turns to brutal winter (bear attacks, sub-zero temperatures and starvation) the seeming death wish of throwing herself to mercy of the elements looks like it might reunite her with the absent family we’ve caught glimpses of in daydream sequences.
So far, so Revenant, as the snow reaches her waist, hunting fails and she resorts to eating crumbs off her filthy shack floor… But help arrives in the shape of a taciturn local man (Demián Bichir) who’s content to accommodate her need to hearing ‘nothing of the outside world’ and chooses to take on the role of mentor in teaching her how to live off the land.
Ordinarily one might expect these two solitary people to become close – perhaps even romantically – but Land is a study in and celebration of silence. The comfort, the companionship and the healing of it. While beginning with therapy that Edee’s sister likens to ‘magic’, this story is about the need to not talk of unspeakable things, and the conversations between Edee and her teacher are limited to necessary discussion of how to skin a deer, trap a rabbit, build a vegetable garden. The magic at work here is in raw hands from chopping wood, bone-tired sleeps after fishing, and the necessary hours spent waiting for quarry to wander into crosshairs.
Like Nomadland, reverence is given to the balm of routine and the joy of a really good view – of which there are plenty. And for those of us dreaming of travel in these lockdown times, the gauzy, gorgeous shots of Canadian landscapes (standing in for Wyoming) and wildlife will be edifying indeed. Equally, the central message may find resonance: that in a disconnected world, the kindness and empathy of strangers are essential.
Wright, having decided to direct the project, struggled to find a lead able to film within the tight 30-day shooting schedule so cast herself – but it’s hard to imagine another actor in the role. Simultaneously strong and brittle, she’s able to show Edee’s inner life with very few words; while Bichir exudes zen-like calm that belies a third-act tragic reveal. An end-game disclosure that seems too neat a plot turn can be forgiven for the elegant way Wright and Birchir play it and the buoyant note of catharsis and hope that Land ends on.
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