.Cabin Fever

Robin Wright’s ‘Land’ loses its way in the woods

Land evaporates before our eyes. But before we cast Robin Wright’s outdoorsy character study into the lake of fire, maybe it’s a good idea to stop and examine just what actor-turned-director Wright is trying to tell us with the story of a contemporary woman who deliberately chooses to lose herself in the mountain wilderness of Wyoming.

Our expectations were high for Land. After all, innocent-tenderfoot-lost-in-the-boondocks adventures such as Into the Wild (Emile Hirsch exiling himself to Alaska) and Wild (Reese Witherspoon solo-backpacking the Pacific Crest Trail) can provide needed thrills—not to mention valuable life lessons—to bored urban audiences, even when the tenderfoot is a fool, à la Harrison Ford in The Mosquito Coast. The heroism of greenhorn city folks coming into conflict with evil bush dwellers—see The River WildDeliverance, etc.—can be a truly satisfying thing to witness, especially when the surly local is a bear. We’re happy to announce that Land does contain a bear. It’s not quite the ursus horribilis we saw in The Revenant, more on the order of the animals in Walt Disney’s cuddly 1953 short doc Bear Country.

But enough about menacing two- and four-footed forest bullies. The chief nemesis of Land‘s protagonist, Edee Mathis, is ultimately herself. As the film opens, Edee arrives down country under a full head of compressed emotional steam. Flashbacks inform us of her former family relationship, now vanished. “I don’t want to be around people,” declares Edee as she throws away her phone and heads up to a remote cabin, where she arranges to have her vehicle towed away, leaving her, in her own words, “alone with my pain.” We might assume her lack of outdoor experience would prove more challenging than her inner anguish, but indeed everything that happens to Eddee is a stepping stone to misery.

Miraculously, the wooden shack comes equipped with some crude furniture and a few basic tools, including a rifle. Edee knows nothing about firearms and very little about farming or food gathering. What is she doing there? Trying to deal with her past and her loss; slowly healing. It occurs to us that there might be kinder, gentler places to rest up and refresh her soul, but Edee apparently doesn’t seem interested. After a few pathetically comic situations and uncomfortable, squirm-inducing events, she gets down to the business of slowly starving to death.

Land is remarkably light on narrative incidents. We won’t disclose what eventually happens to Edee, other than that it involves a hunter (Demián Bichir), a caregiver (Sarah Dawn Pledge) and a dog. In jettisoning most of the typical ingredients of a survivalist thriller, Wright—assisted by the screenwriting team of Jesse Chatham and Erin Dignam—assumes the burden of carrying Edee’s tale through to the end using only her own face, voice and body language. Those are not quite enough. She doesn’t need a guardian angel, she needs a script doctor.

We’ve seen characters undergo agonizing psychological ordeals in the woods before. (Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, with Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg writhing naked on the chilly ground, comes to mind.) But actor-filmmaker Wright is trying for something more familiar, and thus much more difficult to convey—the inner torment of a lone mourner trapped, however deliberately, in an inhospitable environment. Edee suffers convincingly enough, but there’s not nearly enough follow-through. Wright’s character study skimps on the details that might have moved Edee’s predicament from the universal down to ground level. The story’s empathy and compassion seem to be taken for granted.

Wright has made a solid career out of playing women under duress, from 1990’s Denial to Rampart, A Most Wanted Man and the extraneous silliness of the Wonder Woman series. Occasionally, however, good writing seems to elude her—as in Land. We need to know more about Edee than we’re shown, and that’s a problem not even the Wyoming scenery and sensitive acting can overcome.

‘Land’ opened in theaters everywhere Feb. 12.

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