We all know that dialogue is crucial in movies. The right words, said in the right way can make all the difference. What is often overlooked in such a discussion, however, is that the right bit of silence can matter just as much (I’ve touched on this previously to be sure). In her directorial debut, Robin Wright uses silence to convey more than words ever could. The movie, “Land,” written by Jesse Chatham and Erin Digman, may offer up important bits via dialogue, but it is in the silences that the work truly sings.
Not only behind the camera, Wright is also in front here as the lead character, Edee. We meet her in the process of making the clearly difficult decision to leave her home and move to a secluded cabin on the side of a mountain in Wyoming. She thinks she’s ready for what the wilderness has to offer—she’s got books to teach her what to do to survive and some food—but she has no idea what actually awaits her. It is an amazing first half-hour of a movie as we watch Edee struggle to fish and hunt and farm and trap and chop wood.
In this portion of the film, with Edee alone on the mountain, there are a few uttered oaths here and there, but it is largely nonverbal. We just watch as she tries and struggles and tries some more. We watch as what was once summer or fall eventually turns into winter and she’s both freezing and starving. It is clear from the start that she has gone through something awful back wherever she came from, that she every well may have a desire to die, but she’s also trying to find a new life, even if she’s having an exceptionally difficult time at it.
It is horrifying and yet we know that it won’t end there. We know that a shift has to come about because even though the movie is a short one, for Edee to die in the first half hour would be more than little shocking. And so a shift comes and she lives and she finds a friend in Demián Bichir’s Miguel, and all of that is great and enjoyable, but it’s doesn’t compare to the long stretches of the film with just Edee.
There is a self-confidence to the way Wright presents all of this. The silences stretch on and on. The shots of the incredible terrain in which Edee finds herself linger. The horror she experiences just trying to sleep at night stays with you. Although it may be scary and the feelings the movie offer persist, it would be wrong to call them “haunting.” Emblazoned might be a better choice of word. The images Wright presents of Edee diminishing into her surroundings remain emblazoned in your mind long after the film ends.
The success of the film goes beyond this, however. Wright declines to provide Edee (and Miguel) in close-up as often as we might usually see stars in such a film. This, combined with the way in which story points are parsed out convinces one that Wright is providing not a story of one person or even two people, but a feeling about the world on a larger scale. It isn’t just a story about Edee’s losses (and we have a good idea of what those are early on, despite the film not making them explicit at the outset); it isn’t just a story about her trying to find a new life. What Wright offers by presenting the movie as she does is a much more broad view of the manner by which people can find their way back to the world; the manner in which people can learn to cope with massive changes in life.
We can see ourselves in the struggles Edee faces. We can imagine, sometimes all too easily, finding ourselves in the same situation she does. We can only wonder what we would do in the face of such adversity. This, again, is enhanced by the way in which Wright offers the movie — one of the other effects of eschewing some of the close-ups we might usually get is that placing ourselves in Edee’s shoes becomes that much easier, and the whole thing that much scarier.
Within the narrative, years pass as we watch “Land” unfold. Days and weeks and months travel along with the biggest changes being the color of the leaves and sky and the confidence with which Edee lives out her existence. It isn’t a movie about Edee having one epiphany and coming back around to live in the world which she has chosen to abandon. No, it is about Edee learning to live in her new surroundings, learning to accept the world as it is, and finding her place in it before she can dare broaden her scope once more. It sounds a little silly, perhaps, to say it is about her rebirth, but it is exactly that.
And it is beautiful. The world Wright presents us, and not just the landscapes, but even the dilapidated cabin in which Edee makes a home, are beautiful. There is a harshness to some of it, but it all speaks to something greater and that makes it very pretty indeed.
Powerful and poignant from start to finish, “Land” doesn’t ever surprise the audience with its narrative, but rather only in the way the narrative is offered. Robin Wright provides a complete picture of a person going through a crisis, one who isn’t sure they want to come out on the other side, and she does so with a minimal amount of dialogue. It is very much about the power of the image, whether that image is in our mind, in a landscape, or on the big screen.
photo credit: Focus Features