In the time that's passed since the last Sundance, we've all developed a more intimate understanding of loneliness. In her feature directorial debut Land, which premiered Sunday at this year's virtual festival, Robin Wright lives inside the pain of total isolation, this time imposed by unfathomable grief. 

The result is a curious little survival movie ("little" literally, at 89 minutes), straightforward but occasionally inexplicable. As well as directing, Wright stars as Edee, a woman who suffers a horrible loss, the heartbreaking details of which are obscured until the film's final moments. Resisting the help of a therapist and of her well-meaning sister, Edee throws her phone in an actual trash can, buys an ax and some bottled water, and escapes the city for a remote cabin in the untamed wilderness of the Rocky Mountains. 

Sundance 2021
Credit: Sundance Institute

She manages well enough at first, kept company only by brief imaginary glimpses of the family she once had. But when the cold weather rolls in (not to mention a bear), and her casual camping skills clearly aren't going to cut it, she stubbornly resists the urge to return to civilization or seek help of any kind. Luckily, though, help comes to her anyway: Miguel (Demián Bichir), a local hunter, finds her on the verge of death and nurses her back to health. The two of them become unlikely friends — on the condition that Miguel tells Edee no news of the outside world, nor asks her about herself — and their bond brings her back to life in more ways than one.

Wright, who previously directed episodes of House of Cards before making the leap to a feature, has an eye for the grandeur — and the cruelty — of nature. The carefully shot film follows the uncompromising rhythms of the natural world, giving it a singular but effective shape, her near-death experience coming as inevitably, but with as little fanfare, as the snow. The film falters, however, when it comes to the characters inhabiting this majestic wide-open space.

Wright and Bichir are empathetic actors, able to forge a credible connection even where Jesse Chatham and Erin Dignam's ineffective script leaves so much to be desired. Bichir brings great warmth and patience to the almost saintly Miguel, but his very presence in the narrative doesn't totally check out. And though Wright wears Edee's unbearable pain so well, her decision to go to the woods in the first place, to reject the whole world and realize her total loneliness, doesn't ring true either. It doesn't have to make sense — nothing profoundly true makes sense, least of all grief — but the entire setup feels disingenuous, a plot just to let us watch this woman punish herself only to be saved by someone else as a reminder of the goodness in the world. Her occasional enigmatic drama-queen one-liners, too ("If I don't belong here, I don't belong anywhere!"), don't help matters.

What does come through are the good intentions of everyone involved. There's a great sincerity here, even in the schmaltzier bits, demonstrating a real belief in the humanity on display — however contrived the vehicle for it. "This isn't working!" Edee screams at one point, floundering in the harsh winter. It isn't, exactly. But not for lack of trying. B–

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