Grief is impossible to run away from. It hits you when least prepared, always arriving in one form or another to relive unimaginable trauma. Robin Wright’s directorial debut Land is about cutting ties with society to face the most arduous trial a person can experience following loss: surviving the dead. If Wright’s Edee Mathis can endure a hermit existence in the Rocky Mountains, fending for herself under extreme conditions, then she can bear a life without her husband and son. Or so she believes. Wright’s survival drama — an original story by writers Jesse Catham and Erin Dignam — is faith-based but free of religion. The higher power here is inner-strength, derived from knowing what one is capable of and what one still has to learn.
Like its protagonist, it takes time for Land to find confident footing. The opening scene establishes Edee’s resistance to conventional methods of grief counseling. Though her sister Emma (Kim Dickens) means well, talking to a psychiatrist about her feelings only metastasizes Edee’s pain. Every time she stares into another person’s eyes, especially those who haven’t experienced the cold reality of loss, she feels undue pressure to falsify her emotions. Every step towards normalcy feels like a betrayal; every interaction accommodates the party who isn’t scarred.
Emma is fearful her sister will hurt herself unless she decides the next steps. Flashback segments demonstrate how close to the edge of darkness Edee went. However, there’s no guarantee living in the wilderness without a means of transportation or communication won’t also kill her. However, if death is to come, it won’t arrive without a lack of resistance. Jarring editing that splices past and present tends to overdramatize Emma’s hardship rather than let Edee’s current state of “fight or flight” inform her desperation.
Land finally smooths its pacing when Demián Bichir comes into the fold as Miguel, a fellow hunter and trapper in the area who notices something is amiss when smoke stops emitting from Edee’s cabin chimney. Alongside an accompanying nurse named Alawa (Sarah Dawn Pledge), the two bring Edee back from the brink of hypothermia and starvation. While Edee refuses to go into town and check herself into a hospital, she consents to a blood test and takes up Miguel’s offer to teach her fundamental wilderness survival skills. Maybe Edee was looking for an excuse to join her family in the afterlife, but now that she’s been given a second chance to prove her might, she’s prepared to give it her all.
Bichir and Wright have an immediate, easy chemistry. Viewers wonder what is to blossom from their budding friendship, but sometimes remaining platonic means seeing a person in their own light instead of in yours. Whether it’s singing an off-key rendition of Tears of Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” or referencing Star Wars, the two wind up building their own campfire of trust. It’s a remarkable piece of human interaction to witness, made more impressive by their surrounding vistas. Cinematographer Bobby Bukowski captures the majesty of the Rockies. He doesn’t sugarcoat its natural hostility, nor does he view the land as anything less than magnificent in its splendor. Even the script’s sensitive handling of hunting is oddly humane; it’s never viewed as a cruel sport but rather a byproduct of the region’s ecological order.
Ultimately, Wright’s debut proves to be a strident success. It’s not an easy watch at first, nor should it be. There’s visceral anguish, at times almost too difficult to handle. Yet, it’s impossible to deny the honor and privilege of being asked to partake in Edee’s struggle to find a new purpose. Navigating grief through denying basic comforts is no small task, but Edee’s attempt at the near-impossible shows that life is worth fighting for if we surrender to its natural grace.