Throughout a nearly four-decade acting career, Robin Wright has capably channeled characters who carry a patient, dutiful sense of longing and/or silent dignity. Be it The Princess Bride, Forrest Gump, The Congress, or Netflix’s House of Cards, to name only a few notable movies and shows, Wright has often demonstrated a great talent for playing patient, mature women with complicated feelings and careful thinking.
These are all noble qualities found in Land, Wright’s feature directorial debut, but unlike the projects previously mentioned, this sorely undefined attempt at making a soulful, wistful narrative feature lacks the gentle depth, investing insight, or careful consideration that makes these past performances so richly developed. In spite of Wright’s humble efforts, this isolated character is refrained to a fault, unable to capture the understated thoughtfulness of her better work, while also lacking an investing central performance that can gracefully glide over Wright’s shortcomings as a first-time filmmaker. Sadly, the results are underwhelming, presenting the sort of resigned and subdued adult drama that are all-too-rare in today’s cinematic landscape, but often lacking the integral truth and wholeness to make it an enriching experience.
In short, Land is more bland than grand.
The loose-fitting story here follows Edee Mathis (Wright), a sullen woman who carries a great tragedy in her wounded heart. Left to suffer from the pain she constantly feels, Edee decides to strip herself away from a society that brings only sorrowful memories and emotional heartbreak, and thus she ventures off into the woodlands, where she will either make peace with life once more or end her life prematurely. It’s a choice she’ll make on her own, as Edee shies away from any unwanted company or even the passing guidance of strangers, though a near-death experience connects her with a local hunter named Miguel (Demian Bichir), who provides wise and courteous perspective about living and surviving that she didn’t know she needed in her lonesome.
Perhaps the biggest fault of Land is that, in a story about a woman who cannot shake her past, we’re left with a perfunctory tale that’s ultimately too reminiscent of many other movies in this vein. There’s a lot of Wild in here, for instance, as well as last year’s Nomadland (perhaps the biggest thorn in its side). There’s also a good bit of Into the Wild too, which was directed by Sean Penn, Wright’s former partner. There’s meant to be a universal truth to this story, to be clear. But its unintended hollowness only highlights the absence of uniqueness to Wright’s admirably abstained but distractingly dull filmmaking approach. With so much of the story centered around her lead character quietly trying to end her life or make peace with what life has to offer, it takes a dependably gifted storyteller to make something investing and engaging with such mournful material. Alas, Wright’s assurances as a storyteller are woefully undermined by a vacant thematic approach that favors long, often lovely vistas but little insight into our tormented character.
Thankfully, the story picks up in the second half when Demian Bichir plays a hand in this narrative. When Land becomes a more confident two-hander, Wright’s contemplative cinematic approach is given more weight and fundamental honesty, with Bichir’s withdrawn performance providing some compelling mystique and intrigue, while also feeling much more believably sorrowful. It’s a dependably doleful performance that’s gentle and graceful; it gives this otherwise undeveloped drama some fertile narrative ground and provides some much-needed emotional investment into a previously threadbare bore.
Nevertheless, despite some commendable cinematography and Wright’s worthwhile forbearance as a filmmaker, she’s undermined by a vacant script that plays out in predictable fashion, one that never seems to match the grounded stakes and potent dramatic depths that she aspires to create in this drab and lukewarm directorial debut. There’s no doubt that Wright can craft a commendably contemplative character, especially when she works with an outstanding filmmaker. But under her uninspired control, she’s left with an empty endeavor that never produces the fruit of its labors.
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