Beautiful, sad and distant, Land is like the mountainous horizon would-be woodswoman Edee (Robin Wright) spends much of her time gazing at: a picture-perfect artifice which may be full of significance but is just as likely a mere empty view.
On the surface it is an elegantly-paced tone poem of reflection, juxtaposing the uncaring beauty of nature against the risks and rewards of human connection, reminding us how difficult and lonely it is to cut those ties no matter how much we may want to. But beneath the surface is only more surface.
Solid performance and elegant cinematography can (and does) mitigate much of that, but skilled craftsmanship only goes so far. At some point that beautiful landscape, as difficult as it may be, must be mined if you want to find out what’s in it. Otherwise, it remains only a pretty picture.
That may be all Edee needs. Recovering from an unspoken tragedy, Edee has left her old life and family behind to disappear into the wilderness, either to find herself or end herself; she is unsure which. Instead, she finds lonely (or perhaps just lone) farmer Miguel (Demián Bichir), a similar soul who has discovered how to live in isolation and the perils of it.
Slowly, under Miguel’s gentle guidance, Edee begins to reconnect with the life blooming around her and with the painful memories she had been trying so hard to outrun. Just as she starts to recognize the need for life to continue, however, painful tragedy raises its head one more time. Will Edee race from it again, or can she finally face it and the strength life requires?
Robin Wright’s directorial debut is by turns delightful and infuriating, filled with beautiful scenes which never grow together into something more and eventually settle for easy dénouement. The natural landscapes the story takes Edee to provide fantastic backdrops which cinematographer Bobby Bukowski makes the centerpiece of the film.
But they are a literal centerpiece, like a bowl of plastic fruit on the dining room table, adding a splash of color but nothing of substance.
The performances are stuck in a similar paradigm, especially in the first half as Edee spends so much time alone, reflecting on the difficult paths both behind and ahead of her. Wright’s work is delicate and never overdone, with only glimpses offered of her relationship with her sister (Kim Dickens) and hints ant what she has left behind.
Considering she’s both directing and in almost every minute of every scene it’s doubly impressive the concentration she’s able to keep focused on both sides of the camera. The story won’t ever let it go anywhere, but it’s impressive none the less.
Things open up when Edee bumps into Miguel, giving both Wright someone to play off of and switching the story from morose grieving to something approaching rebirth like the flowers in Edee’s field. Bichir, who has been lost in genre work the last few years after his breakthrough in Chris Weitz’s A Better Life, reminds what he can do with even so-so material as he works to remind Edee that there’s no more to life than just being alive.
It’s the kind of role that can (and almost does) become easily messianic, an angelic if human figure who arrives as needed and departs just as suddenly. He’s like a modern-day Homer Smith, but Bichir quiet, calm approach separates Miguel from some sort of magical figure, even if he is left almost as much a blank as Edee.
Land certainly has its pleasures, particularly the way it refuses to give in to easy melodrama and easily turns to purely visual storytelling (not always a given in actor directed films). But it also has a lot of emptiness, enough to make the great valley Edee lives over seem like a pothole, and not enough of an idea on what to fill it with.
A focus on reflection, on tone and internalization is always interesting in an emotional drama but they’re only the first step in the journey. They’re not the destination and Land ironically (given its message) is terribly confused about that.
LAND REVIEW SCORE: 6.5/10
Focus Features will release Land in theaters on Friday, February 12. Directed by Robin Wright from a script by Jesse Chatham and Erin Dignam, the film also stars Sarah Dawn Pledge, Warren Christie, Finlay Wojtak-Hissong, and Brad Leland.