“LAND” Film Review

A thoughtful exploration of PTSD, grief, and isolation that takes you on a journey that will ultimately lift your spirits and leave you with hope. Robin Wright’s directorial debut LAND is a breathtaking motion picture best experienced on the BIG SCREEN. And fortunately, it’s currently only available on the big screen. From the sweeping mountain landscapes to intimate character moments, this motion picture is an audacious yet simple story. Wright’s film is a punctilious, existential character study about the importance of connection even when isolation seems to be the only choice to work though (or avoid, as it were) traumatic, debilitating stress. Land an intelligent, emotionally moving work of cinematic art. So often character study films find themselves on the verge, if not intentionally, manipulating the audience; however, this film finds the balance in delivering the thoughtful moments and plot direction. That said, the third act does feel a bit rushed after the methodical first two acts. When actors transition to writer or director, there is historically a tendency to be self-indulgent, sometimes to the point of crafting one’s own Oscar or sizzle reel, in an effort to demonstrate the breadth of talent that they feel their previous directors or producers have hindered them from fully showcasing, but that is not the case with Wright’s LAND. While Wright is demonstrating that she can successfully direct a motion picture, she is making this film for any and everyone who has suffered a great loss or experienced a psychologically damaging trauma. With minimal dialogue, especially in the first act, Wright takes a page out of the Norma Desmond school of filmmaking, and relies upon the power of the eyes and nuance of body language to say everything. “I can say anything with my eyes,” –Norma Desmond (Sunset Boulevard).

When Edee (Robin Wright) cannot find solace in her therapist or sister following a tragedy, she buys an isolated home in the mountain wilderness of Wyoming, and completely disconnects from the outside world. “No phones, no lights, no motorcars, not a single luxury…,” you get the idea. Not fully prepared for the harshness of living on the frontier, she finds herself at the brink of death when a local hunter Miguel (Demian Bichir) and nurse Alawa (Sarah Dawn Pledge) come to her rescue. Although Edee is thankful for saving her life, she is resistent to any further help or company. Through her geographic and social isolation, Edee learns the value of human connection.

At its heart, LAND is a character-driven story about loss and grief so unimaginable that it drives one to the brink of death. And Wright does a brilliant job at visually communicating the immenseness of this pain through the use of placing the central character of Edee against the backdrop of the Rocky Mountain wilderness. When one experiences an intense psychological trauma, it’s almost as if the entire once-familiar landscape has radically changed, and has it in for you. Throughout the introductory scenes and even the first act as a whole, Edee displays great pain. But it’s not big and loud pain; it’s nuanced and understated, but no less powerful and moving, eliciting great empathy from the audience. The screenwriters strategically withhold the details about the trauma that led Edee to make her radical decision to escape to the wilderness to escape the pain of reality. However, we are given little crumbs of exposition through the effective use of brief flashbacks paired with intense plot beats. Through these brief flashbacks, we learn that Edee has a sister named Emma; but we also get glimpses of a man and boy (that we later learn is Edee’s lost husband and son). By the screenwriters keeping these cards close to their chest, the audience keeps the focus on Edee’s present journey, and it has the added benefit of driving up the suspense.

Up to the point of Edee’s near death experience due to hypothermia, the film has an incredibly somber tone with little to no hope in sight. But with the introduction of Miguel and Alawa, the film undergoes a tonal shift. Not only do these good Samaritans save Edee’s life, but Miguel becomes an unexpected companion, teacher, and eventual friend. Apprehensive to the idea of human company, Edee eventually finds value in the survival lessons that Miguel can teach her. Against her initial reaction to this new-found neighbor, she accepts Miguel’s offer but asks that he not tell her anything of the outside world. Edee learned early on that Miguel has his own trauma that he’s working through, and uses hunting and quiet times in the wilderness as his therapy. Watching these two interact with one another, softens the tone of the film even though the specter of Edee’s anger remains active beneath the surface. Still, we can tell that she is consistently processing her experience and reaction thereof as she learns to live off the land. Over the months the Edee is learning from Miguel, we witness that Edee is strong and capable, and isn’t allowing the loss of her family to leave her a victim. Rather than becoming a prisoner of or exploiting her suffering, she uses it as motivation. She turns her immense pain into something proactive and meaningful.

While shooting a film in such a breathtaking setting may provide temptation to capture the majestic beauty of the Wyoming Rockies to the extent that the film merely becomes a series of postcards that happen to contain some plotting and conflict, LAND never shifts focus from our central character. The environment in which she finds herself manifests an extension of the emotional turmoil. Despite the grand beauty of the setting, it never feels entirely safe. Danger looms around every corner, because it was successfully setup right from the very beginning. Much in the same way that the set and production design of a gothic romance or German expressionism film creatively manifest the emotional subtext and tone of the film, the mountainous landscape of LAND very much does the same. When we are internalizing trauma, whether it’s by intentional choice or subconsciously, the image we project may be positive and beautiful, not unlike the mountains that surround Edee’s shack. But that shack represents the turmoil that has taken up residence within our mind.

For all the avant-garde elements of Wright’s LAND, she directed an accessible character-study motion picture that most audiences can appreciate and understand. All the while, Wright doesn’t have to hold our hands along the treacherous pathways. While the plot is simple, this film provides a great opportunity to have conversations about the affects of trauma, especially when it’s unimaginable. Whether you have found yourself in the depths of depression and self-imposed isolation as Edee or not, you will be able to connect to this relatable character because we have all lost someone dear to us (most recently, I lost my grandmother). Perhaps you have chosen a different method for coping with your grief, but this is how Edee chose to deal with hers. It’s a journey to which we can relate, as so often we don’t really know what to do with our anger following tragedy. Sometimes we too may feel that we want to escape from it all, but we eventually learn that we need human connection in order to survive.

This is a motion picture truly best experienced on the BIG SCREEN at THE CINEMA. Cinemas are hard at work to create a safe environment for you. I am a regular at the Universal Cinemark, and have never felt unsafe.

Ryan teaches screenwriting and film studies at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with or meet him in the theme parks!

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“Kajillionaire” Film Mini-Review

An exercise in how bored can you leave the audience before they fall asleep. Miranda July’s Kajillionaire is a thoughtful story that attempts to explore how one’s family can hold one back from healthy personal and professional development; however, the method of plot execution leaves the audience wondering why they should even care about the story. Had it not been for the compelling performances by the ensemble cast, I would’ve lost completely interest in the film. Kajillionaire desperately wants you to be engaged, but outstanding performances alone cannot keep an audience’s attention for the duration of the runtime. The film is billed as a comedy, but I never found myself laughing or even chuckling. Tonally, the film is all over the place. Had the film committed to striking a consistent tone, then perhaps the comedic elements would have stood out more instead of feeling random and forced. Clearly July set out to craft a motion picture that commented on brainwashing, neglect, and child rearing with a lack of empathy, sexual discovery, and those elements are depicted; but the film delivers a narrative that was so preoccupied with the message, that it forgot that it also needed to be even mildly entertaining. Quite frankly, the film has the personality and dimension of cardboard. Which is unfortunate, considering that the subject matter aims to be thought provoking. This film strikes me as one of those that is tailor-made made for #FilmTwitter to posit as the next great indie darling, when the story and characters are largely forgettable. What I will remember most about the film is the excellent performances delivered by the cast.

PS. I hope to be back to full reviews soon, but assisting the Florida Department of Health with COVID-19 data collection and analysis and writing for Four’s a Crowd Podcast, and of course my academic work at the University of Tampa, leaves me with limited time presently.

Ryan teaches screenwriting and American cinema at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Ryan is also the creator of the Four’s a Crowd sitcom podcast now streaming on your favorite podcatcher. Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with or meet him in the theme parks!

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“The Kings of Summer” movie review

KOS-PosterA unique coming-of-age story in the vein of Stand By Me. However, unlike the more conventional coming of age stories, the subtext and themes of then first-time feature director Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ film, written by Chris Valletta, are merely touched upon but seldom followed through in any meaningful way. The deadpan comedy and one-liners are simply tossed around instead of providing deeper meaning or introspect that may have increased the emotions felt throughout the movie. It’s a very surface level movie that fails to substantially deliver the dynamic quality narrative that is typically expected of these films. That isn’t to say that it is without merit; quite the contrary, it is enjoyable and is successful in taking you back to that time when you felt that no one understood you and you wanted to be treated like an adult, but still clung to the reckless freedom of hormonal youth. Understanding the consequences of one’s behavior is a regularly visited theme in the movie. With gorgeous outdoor cinematography and relatable characters, The Kings of Summer contains a little something for everyone who has ever thought of running away and building a cabin in the woods for you and your buds.

The Kings of Summer is about three teenagers Joe (Nick Robinson), Patrick (Gabriel Basso), and Biaggio (Moises Arias) who run away from their respective dysfunctional families and make a life for themselves out in the woods by building a house and living off the land. Ever since Joe’s mother died, he just does not get along with his father Frank (Parks and Rec‘s Nick Offerman). In turn, his father has anger and resentment issues he too is working through with the untimely passing of his wife. Unfortunately, Frank takes out his anger on Joe and both have nearly become alienated from one another. Making valid points about Joe’s behavior but not delivering those points with understanding, Frank and Joe just do not get along. With Patrick also not getting along with his helicopter parents (Megan Mullally and Marc Even Jackson), Joe convinces him to join with their new friend Biaggio and rule their own lives and answer to no one except each other. Forming a friendship pact, the three seem inseparable. However, even this three-fold cord has struggles and disagreements, jealously and rage. The young men are forced to work through life’s problems while dealing with the chemical and psychological changes of growing up.

Have you ever just wanted to escape life? Just quit and run away to a tropical island or mountain valley? That is just what you will encounter in The Kings of Summer. Coming-of-age stories are usually some of the films that find their way onto favorite lists or those to which so many people can relate because they deal with issues many of us face while in that transitional time from teenager to adult. From lakeside high school parties to hormones and independence, this film includes some of the various turning points and learning opportunities one likely encounters while discovering who he or she is. Ordinarily, films such as this, deliver the content in such a way that it offers deeper meaning or emotional connections in the narrative. And although there are some themes and moderate introspect, the film does not go far enough in connecting the audience with the teenagers or adults in the movie. There were several lines of dialog that alluded to potential conflicts and personal struggles that could have been revisited to offer more substance in the film. That being said, the writer and director do provide relatable characters who are each very different from the other in an effort to provide audiences with a character to whom they can identify. It is important for coming-of-age movies to not only contain relatable characters but relatable situations as well. And this movie does that, just not to the extent it had the capacity to do.

One of the interesting themes that can be read in The Kings of Summer is questioning one’s sexual orientation. Much like in Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 2, in which the protagonist’s sexual orientation is questionable, you can find similar themes in this film. Throughout the movie, Joe is regularly making speeches on and offering up pithy comments about masculinity. Quite regularly, Joe lectures Patrick and Biaggio about what it means to me a man. At times, Joe even becomes defensive when his masculine ways are questioned. As Shakespeare penned, “…thou doth protest too loudly…” It is entirely possible that Joe is struggling to come to terms with his sexual preferences. This could explain why he would go to such drastic measures to escape his rigid father in order to discover who he is when he has to provide for himself. Other supporting evidence of this theme is simply the fact that he doesn’t get the girl even though he tried much more than Patrick. When Patrick winds up with the girl, Joe is outraged and never quite gets over it. There are also the frequent trips to Boston Market instead of truly “being a man” and hunting for food. Maybe he’s simply trying too hard to deny who he is developing to be? Perhaps. But, there are additionally also other themes that can be read in this unique coming-of-age story.

Although this film did not receive the national attention in 2013 that it really should have, it is definitely one that is worth a watch if you enjoy this sub-genre of Drama. Ordinarily, ensemble casts can hinder effective character development and excellent storytelling, but the cast in this film is handled moderately well. If there had been more focus on the personal struggles or if the film included an external goal, then it would have definitely been better and perhaps more popular. Stories in general–especially visual stories–require the principle characters to not only have internal goals, but a clearly defined external goal as well. Often the external goal can echo the internal one, but it is important to show a tangible goal. Unfortunately, the latter is lacking in the diegesis of The Kings of Summer. This movie won’t likely ever have the nostalgia or cache of Stand By Me, but it does offer up a fun story with an excellent cast and some personal growth that will keep you entertained for the hour and a half runtime.

You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, let him know and you can join him at the cinema.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!

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