It’s never a good sign when the most interesting thing about a film festival drama is its novelty as a feature directorial debut from the person who also stars in it. For every Citizen Kane and Wanda, we have just as many efforts that don’t quite reach the same level of success. Last year, that Sundance let-down happened to be Falling, Viggo Mortensen’s flawed attempt at bringing a family story into the spotlight with an against-type performance driving the awards narrative. This year, we have Land from Robin Wright, an actor whose decades of work on the small and big screen have given her plenty of room to find similar success behind the camera on a film project (her directorial debut technically being for a few episodes of Netflix’s Houses of Cards).
Fortunately, Land has enough going for its thin premise to support a curious watch by Wright’s most ardent fans. The Focus Features film stars Wright as a woman who has endured a tremendous loss that is kept mostly ambiguous, with the obvious intent of communicating information through performance instead of exposition, which Wright knows how to pull off with aplomb. Her mechanism for coping with this deep loss is to move out to the wilderness in Wyoming with just a truck of supplies and her wits. Eventually, even the truck is taken away, leaving her completely isolated, for reasons that make clear her intention to survive or die trying.
On paper, this is a reasonably complex character struggle, a mixing of nuanced depression and how it can manifest as a nihilistic form of suicide. There’s a difference between not wanting to live and not living like you have a plan to continue doing so, and this is the richest territory Land tries to explore. But in execution, the film’s contemplative landscape is mostly dehydrated and one-note, paired with a few unlikable turns from our main actor, who can’t seem to reach the same heights of sympathy garnered in similar roles like Reese Witherspoon’s Cheryl Strayed from Wild. My own personal litmus test for how differently these performances land is the fact that I remember the name of Witherspoon’s character five years after seeing Wild once. It’s been two weeks since I watched Land, and I honestly can’t even remember the first name of our protagonist.
Eventually, the film navigates a new threshold of interest by introducing the character of Miguel (Demián Bichir), a local hunter who steps in to teach Wright’s character how to survive more effectively. Their growing friendship works much better than the film’s earlier, slower winter, and it almost makes a fine point out of how grief can sometimes be managed by something as simple as human connection. But this opportunity to illustrate the balm of humanity on something so deeply felt never quite matches the visual metaphor, which is all about self-reliance and being as sturdy as the elements. It’s a massively difficult line to straddle for a first-time director, and Wright misses the mark despite her best efforts.
Still, there is an abundance of promise in Wright’s hand as a director, particularly when it comes to displaying the rough realities of living off the grid, and how the romantic veneer of frontier life can be violently washed away by the cold, hard truths of invading a space that isn’t your own. Wright gets this across without allowing the film to lose sight of what’s also beautifully simple about this take on human existence. She balances the paradox of nature effectively, even though this script doesn’t really offer anything new or provoking to say about it.
There’s a large enough contingent of film lovers who can’t get enough out of these movies where down-trodden people of privilege manage to find themselves out in the wilderness. It’s not exceptional to fantasize about what it would be like to strip out the complexities of life in favor of an honest, freeing escape into our roots as hunter-gatherers. But for viewers outside this spectrum of interest, Land is a pretty flat, uninspiring journey to take.