Grief and tragedy have long been an overarching theme of independent dramas, especially those that find their way across major film festivals in search of studio buyers.
But they’re also a fantastic way for first-time directors to plant their flag in the sand as an emerging filmmaker or actors to announce their arrival as a behind-the-scenes star.
Golden Globe-winning actress Robin Wright – who directed several episodes of her award winning television drama House of Cards – makes her major motion picture debut with Land, which premiered Sunday evening at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and is slated for a theatrical release February 12.
Set primarily in the wilds of rural Wyoming, Land stars Wright as a woman seeking complete solitude for reflection and self-destruction following tragedy. Her desire to shut herself away from the world in spite of lacking any survival skills places her in the path of Miguel, an area hunter who teaches her the ways of the land and helps her begin to find her soul again.
Wright’s journey as Edie begins with a hollow sorrowfulness that permeates through the screen, a bittersweet melancholia dripping out like oozing dark blue blood soaking into the nightscapes. Much of the film is sans dialogue, which gives Wright the opportunity to emote in silence only to break free with cries of despair at pivotal moments.
It’s a much better performance of restraint as an actress than as a director, where Wright feels like she’s holding back when something more is needed to take the film to the next level.
Land feels like a narrative half-step beyond films in its genre, the solo-explorers looking to find themselves again while overcoming obstacles both physical and emotional.
Exceptionally limited in its narrative, Wright’s film makes the absolute most out of its 89-minute running time; a longer feature would have become repetitive or bloated with outside influences that would have taken away from Edie’s journey of self-repair.
Demián Bichir provides warmth as Miguel, whose sense of purpose is unclear for much of the film, but Bichir delivers it honestly and with appropriate trepidation. As the primary figure audiences see in Land outside of Wright’s singular work, Bichir does a terrific job of supporting Wright just enough to give Edie a way forward without taking away any of the spotlight deservedly going to Wright’s efforts.
Land probably should find a second life on the big screen once audiences are able to fully make their way back into the theaters as Bobby Bukowski’s cinematography emphasizes grandiose landscapes of rural Wyoming with soft hues and natural light.
Often, Wright leaves little for the audience to experience beyond the visual – and the haunting score from Ben Sollee and Time for Three – giving Land a thin, cinematic quality that feels underwhelming on a home viewing. The naturalistic look of the film begs for large scale cinema to project the grandiose nature Wright and Bukowski capture.
While Land will make the window of theatrical releases eligible for the 2020 Academy Awards given the pushback in the Oscar timeframe, it will likely remain on the outside looking in with stronger performances in the Lead Actress and Cinematography categories. The one Sundance 2021 film likely to make waves this award season will be Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah, which debuted Monday evening and will arrive in theaters and HBO Max February 12.
Land is unlikely to be among the most talked about films to come from this year’s Sundance class and though it will remain in the zeitgeist over the next few months, Land will be a popular pick among audiences desperate for escapism in the short term only to be largely forgotten by the end of the year.
Note: This review was written after screening at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival ahead of its release to the general public on February 12.