Robin Wright blows a fuse in directorial debut ‘Land’

Image from Land
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Grade: 3.0/5.0

It’s tempting to think Robin Wright isn’t up to the task her character in “Land” demands. Wright plays Edee, who starts off deadpan and expressionless, her face rendered flat by a trick of sunlight, telegraphing “leave me alone.” The exposition-packed opening of “Land” finds Edee telling her therapist, in vague and not entirely truthful terms, that nobody relates to her. It’s a stark reprisal of Wright’s “House of Cards” character: despondent, wallowing, hapless. Where Claire Underwood had a sharp plan, though, Edee truthfully is emotionally destitute.

Edee’s character is hazarded by gray areas — if not within the film’s trajectory, then within her own emotional complexity. Wright, in her directorial debut, unveils so little that the first act’s Edee can’t evolve past the skeletal outline of a woman in grief. Wright’s Edee is teetering on the edge — in an underleveraged flashback, Edee is talked down from suicide by her sister, Emma (a perplexingly benched Kim Dickens) — but the film is stuck in slow motion. When Edee reaches a breaking point, she flees society for solitude’s sanctity. In the woods, life is anything but empty politics, and a dramatic, instantaneous mood change conceals Edee’s deeper turmoil.

On the other hand, that’s exactly what Edee the despaired wants, conveying an introvert so often left off the screen. She doesn’t mean to offend, but she really just doesn’t want to say anything to anyone, as she explains to the duo that nurses her back from the brink of starvation, Miguel (Demián Bichir) and Alawa (Sarah Dawn Pledge). She’s on the run — from her history, from the death of her husband and child and from all the people who can’t understand her — but she can’t bear to articulate any of that. Edee’s stoic side overpowers the film’s narrative, however. Wright too adeptly masks Edee, detracting from a fresh grief narrative and nearly bleeding into the personal opacity that “House of Cards” was steeped in.

Valiantly, cinematographer Bobby Bukowski manages to pick out the randomness of death and the limited time the living take for granted. An uncomplicated camera accompanies Edee’s fluctuations, bobbing chaotically at first, then slumbering and settling into a rhythm as Edee adopts a life she’s woefully unprepared for. That evenness both inflames the film’s faults and aggravates Edee’s ineptitude. Her contradictions are on the nose, pushed to the fore by a camera that simply captures the script.

Roughing it in Wyoming becomes easier for a learning Edee, but nature thwarts her at every turn. Even after animals dig up her seeds, a storm threatens to blow her off the mountain and a bear ransacks her home, Edee still exudes a suicidal determination — “so what if I die,” she seems to say. Wright’s breathing, a smart replacement for dialogue, is not heady or laborious, rather opting for subversive, if not outright stubborn pain, seeking a path to a final end.

When screenwriters Jesse Chatham and Erin Dignam put a band-aid on Edee’s pain, then, they signal nothing more than cheap coming attractions. Her transition from reckless and pain-ravaged to contented is never fully explored — which, keep in mind, is the movie’s foundation. Although Miguel, ever soothing, stays by Edee’s side to teach her to survive the wilderness, their bond never develops to maturity. Miguel googles her, permeating her solace and kicking off a complex subplot, which is promptly dumped. Wright is smoked out of subdued, muted grief and into a plot racing for flaccid resolution. With that, everything becomes too in-your-face: the utilitarian wardrobe and hair changes, her moods and the soundtrack (how much acoustic guitar does “Land” really need?).

Most disappointingly, the film’s end poses a social-political comment wildly out of tune with the rest of “Land.” The source of Edee’s anguish finally comes into full focus, but, like so much of the film, is only meekly connected, forming a not so subtle caveat separated from the film’s core. By the end, “Land” flatly wraps a bow on its problems, then scoots them off-screen with a “there, there.”

Dominic Marziali covers film. Contact him at [email protected].