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Land review – a ropey and unconvincing tale of grief in the wild

Robin Wright makes an inauspicious start to her directing career with a debut film that is considerably less than the sum of its parts

With House of Cards and the Wonder Woman films, Robin Wright has, in recent years, carved out a place as one of the go-to actresses for steely women in the upper echelons of power. For her directorial debut, Land, though, she sheds this image to try and craft a more vulnerable and damaged character. Unfortunately, it’s not a gambit that particularly pays off, Land proving to be a ropy proposition from writing to direction to performances, failing to capitalise on its premise.

Wright stars both in front of and behind the camera, playing Edee, a woman who has recently suffered the loss of her husband and son and, under the advice of her sister Emma (Kim Dickens), heads to a remote cabin in the Wyoming wilderness to try and find solace and purpose in rugged survivalism. There are echoes of Sean Penn’s Into the Wild in the way that Edee chooses to make life harder for herself, ditching her phone and her car on the way to the cabin, but Land lacks that film’s psychological insights and sense of wonder, so the hurdles Edee has to climb over end up as annoyances rather than compelling obstacles.

Writers Jesse Chatham and Erin Dignam rarely find ways for Edee to think her way out of a problem, instead having issues crop up once and then be magically solved through dumb luck or timely intervention. Wolves and bears briefly scratch at the doors early in the film, only to never be seen again, blizzards are navigated without much difficulty, and a food shortage/hypothermia combo is rectified by the timely arrival of gruff but lovable hunter Miguel (Demian Bichir).

The stakes are low and, despite solid make-up work, Wright never convinces as someone at the end of their tether, either physically or mentally. Bichir brings a charming charisma to Miguel, but the role is so underwritten that he ends up more as a platitude-spouting machine than a real person. A couple of campfire singalongs between Edee and Miguel have a real power and energy, but these are too few and far between in a film that otherwise lacks spark.

Wright’s direction is similarly uneven. The opening scene in a therapist’s office is very well handled, capturing in fine detail the odd mix of relief and discomfort of opening yourself up to a stranger, but this early promise is often squandered, choppy editing and poorly chosen priorities sinking the later sections. The Wyoming landscapes are stunning, with deep valleys and huge skies that are transportingly gorgeous at dawn and dusk, yet Wright often seems almost uninterested in it. Too little time is dedicated to the nature that is supposedly healing Edee as she masters it and there’s too much time spent in closeups with a weirdly shallow focus that just makes everything look flat.

In a year where we’ve already had a bonafide masterpiece about a woman taking to the American countryside to grieve in Nomadland, Land was always going to face an uphill struggle to really make an impact, but the distance by which it falls short is its own doing. There are some touching moments of grace to be found here, and at under 90 minutes it doesn’t dawdle, but this is a mostly inauspicious beginning to Wright’s directorial career.

Land is released in UK cinemas on 4 June.

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