What an enticing opportunity the Solitary Survival Movie presents to the accomplished actor, who in most cases will share the screen with other performers in only a handful of scenes and then will have to carry the movie alone for long stretches of time, with no exchanges of dialogue, no interactions with other humans.
Tom Hanks in “Castaway” immediately springs to mind. Then there’s George Clooney in last year’s “Midnight Sky,” Sandra Bullock in “Gravity” (with an extended Clooney cameo), Emile Hirsch in “Into the Wild,” Robert Redford in “All Is Lost,” James Franco in “127 Hours,” Reese Witherspoon in “Wild,” Sam Rockwell in “Moon,” Matt Damon in “The Martian,” and on it goes. Now comes Robin Wright making her directorial debut and starring in “Land,” which for a long time qualifies as Solitary Survival Movie and takes that concept as far as it will go — and that’s when the story truly takes flight. Despite that not-intriguing title and some late developments that come precariously close to piling on the sentimentality, this is ultimately a breathtakingly beautiful, stark and deeply human story about love and loss, and the extreme measures some will take to numb their pain.
Wright delivers the latest in a long line of finely nuanced performances as Edee, whose life in Chicago came crashing down when she lost her husband and son, leaving her isolated and grief-stricken and suicidal, even as her loyal and loving sister (Kim Dickens in a small but memorable role) tries desperately to convince Edee not to give up. Edee’s solution, such as it is: She’s moving to a remote cabin deep in the Rocky Mountains in Wyoming, armed only with canned goods and a few creature comforts and essentials (no cell phone, no laptop) and at best a rudimentary knowledge of how to survive in the deceptively gorgeous but unforgiving surroundings. Once Edee moves in, she gets rid of her vehicle, further cutting her off from the outside world. It might as well be 1821 instead of 2021. Either Edee hasn’t thought this all the way through — or she has, and she’s deliberately embarking on a long and slow and painful march to inevitable suffering or even death.
With cinematographer Bobby Bukowski expertly capturing the epic wonder of the surroundings as well as the brutally punishing conditions, “Land” carries an almost claustrophobic intensity as Edee gamely tries to learn how to hunt and trap and fish, rations her food supplies and tries to keep the cabin warm and dry as winter closes in. But she’s no match for the conditions — or for the bear that raids the place when she’s out foraging. Heartbroken, starving and freezing, Edee is on death’s doorstep when a miracle of sorts occurs; an accomplished hunter named Miguel (Demián Bichir) and a nurse named Alawa (Sarah Dawn Pledge) find her and save her, staying with her through a long and arduous recovery.
Alawa is suspicious of this lone stranger who refuses to go to the hospital and offers little information about her circumstances. Is Edee some sort of fugitive? Miguel, who has an almost saintly air, only wants to be of service and even offers to teach Edee survival skills if she’s willing to let him return from time to time. (Edee agrees, but only if Miguel brings no news from the outside world.)
A friendship is struck. As much as Edee is determined to remain isolated, she begins to look forward to the visits from Miguel and his rambunctious dog.
“Why did you help me?” Edee asks.
“You were in my path,” comes the quiet reply, which is so simple and so profound it feels Biblical.
By this point “Land” has shed its Solitary Survival Movie and has become a lovely and poignant and warm two-character set piece, with Wright and Bichir striking all the right notes (at one point literally, when they sing “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” in a rare moment of joy for Edee). We eventually learn certain details about Miguel’s life and I’ll say no more other than this: For those who believe everything happens for a reason, nobody in the world was better suited to find Edee than Miguel.