Review: The Dematerialised Vistas of ‘Land’

From the opening scene of Land, Robin Wright’s directorial debut, it is clear that this is a film that will only engage its titular subject as a symbol. After an unspeakable tragedy, we see protagonist Edee (Robin Wright) telling a therapist that she must get away from the city and its people, all of whom just want her “to be better.” With snow falling outside, you’d think that a therapist’s office would have their windows closed and the heating on, and yet all we hear in the background are the inordinately amplified sounds of a generic cityscape. This choice of sound design reveals the underlying structure of the film to follow: in urban space there is only ‘noise’; ‘land’ only exists in the ‘out there’ portrayed on the film’s poster.

So off she goes. When Edee arrives at the isolated alpine cabin where the majority of the film takes place, she asks the gruff mountain man who drove her there to take back the rental vehicle. The gruff mountain man responds: “It’s not a good idea to be out here without a vehicle.” Edee insists. Uh oh.

I did not have high expectations for this film. I would never have paid to watch it. In fact, I would almost call the fact that I went to see it at all a premeditated spite-watch. I first noticed the poster one night in the cinema where I work one of my jobs. I stood in front of it for a few moments, amassing my critical arsenal as I scanned the image from background to foreground: snow-capped peaks, rolling hills, pine trees, log cabin, woodchop block and axe, fire, and finally, middle-aged white woman staring pensively into the distance. Nothing about this heavy-handed Photoshop arrangement suggested satire. And yet, when Edee throws her smartphone in a public bin on her getaway from the city — just in case we didn’t glean her social class from the polished interiors of the opening scenes — I was left asking if the film was trying to establish critical distance from its protagonist, so affected was this set piece.

Shortly after Edee and the gruff mountain man arrive at the cabin, they both take a moment to look out onto the mountain valley vista which forms the film’s backdrop. “This is all hunting land here. Yours,” he says, before vaguely pointing to the bottom of the valley, “That way butts up to the Shoshone National Forest and tribal lands. You shouldn’t have any problem with trespassers.” While it’s unrealistic to expect Wright’s film to wield a critical analysis of settler-colonialism, this dialogue at least introduces (quite succinctly, in fact) the notion of land in Land as something material divided by those with the power to do so.

Unfortunately, this critical aperture only opens momentarily. From then on, land is reduced to landscape, visual motif, a mere vehicle for narrative. For a film whose drawcard, if nothing else, is meant to be its space and scenery, Land makes for a claustrophobic watch thanks to its pacing. This is not an artistic choice to reflect Edee’s internal state, which instead we are bludgeoned with by soft-focus flashbacks and blunt declarations (at one point she screams “this isn’t working!”) Rather, it is a question of economy in all senses of the word: every shot of the land serves a purpose, hurrying along a conventional and predictable plot. The main vista appears from various angles only as a visual break from scenes in which the land and the animals and plants that inhabit it exist only to aid Edee in her survival or thwart her efforts. The camera never rests on anything long enough for us to consider its existence independent of the protagonist. For all of Nomadland’s ethical problems, at least Chloé Zhao’s film populates land with forms of life and grants the viewer the time to consider the landscape and its function — foundational and ongoing — in the American cultural and political imaginary. 

If not attributing the land any sense of materiality is the film’s central political failure, it functions by way of an artistic failure that touches everything in Land: a complete lack of specificity. Only one character in the film escapes Wright’s generalising brushstrokes (the script, by Jesse Chatham and Erin Digham, does her no favours.) When Edee’s attempt to live off the land fails, Miguel (Demián Bichir) and Alawa Crow (Sarah Dawn Pledge) find her on the brink of death. Once they have nursed Edee back to consciousness, Alawa, a nurse, says that they need to get her to a hospital. Edee refuses, obstinate in her complete disregard for others. Sarah Dawn Pledge’s fleeting appearance may be Land’s only redeeming quality; as she questions Edee’s privilege and then decides to leave her, Alawa’s words and countenance allude far beyond this cloistered world of generalities to one of specific labour and life grounded in a single distinct place. Both Alawa and Miguel — First Nations and Latinx respectively — give the film at least two more chances to examine Edee’s hubris with some level of criticality. Instead, inexplicably, Miguel stays with Edee to nurse her back to full health, because apparently he had nothing on his agenda that week. 

In Edee’s failure to live off the land, there is potential for interrogating the American foundational myth of the Western frontier that we see so heartbreakingly clung to by people of an entirely different social standing in Nomadland. Instead, Edee’s eventual mastery of the skills needed for survival ‘in the wild’ under Miguel’s tutelage suggests an even more pernicious allegory in the midst of ongoing protest responding to the systemic racism foundational to American society and government; one in which mastery over land in the West is achieved through inter-racial harmony. When Edee finally reveals to Miguel that her son and husband were killed in a shooting — that perennial liberal-progressive talking point which conveniently universalises American violence — the film’s artistic failure to engage specificity seems engineered to aim for allegory. 

The film’s real symbolic function, however, remains unclear until we consider its reception. Filmed in late 2019, Land premiered at Sundance earlier this year in a country at the worst stage of the pandemic. It positioned itself accordingly; “a story of humanity in the face of uncertainty,” read its tagline. Just as ‘the land’ — along with the help of those who ‘know it’ — heals Edee from her individual trauma, Land poses as a salve for the collective trauma of the pandemic.

And yet, for those still recovering from this trauma, watching Land will likely induce rage. Last year in the US well-to-do folks across the country fled cities, driving real estate prices in rural areas to unprecedented highs as they established home offices, dialling into Manhattan via Zoom each morning. Edee’s self-serving sojourn is a reminder to those less fortunate, of their inability to take their families to relative safety in the face of monumental governmental failures. The film’s refusal to address land politics and its specificities in any way is made all the more egregious by the fact that First Nations communities in the US were disproportionately affected by the pandemic with disastrous results.

Ultimately, Land fails at the even most modest goal of escapism, its parsimonious use of landscape granting us no imaginative space beyond the pandemic’s constraints. After saying goodbye to my colleagues and recommending that they not waste their time on this film, I left the cinema thinking about what life would have been like shooting in the mountains of Alberta for 29 days; how testing it must have been at times; what the cast and crew’s interactions with locals looked like; and how much it must have all cost. That would be an interesting story. Land, however, stands only as an instructive lesson to filmmakers on how not to make a film about place and people’s relationship to it.

Land is now playing in Australian cinemas.


Muhib Nabulsi is a diaspora Palestinian writer, programmer & novice filmmaker currently living and working on occupied Yuggera Country in Meanjin/Brisbane. He tweets @__muhib__.

Muhib Nabulsi