“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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“The Lodge” Horror Film Review

Immersive and utterly terrifying! After a dismal start to 2020 horror, The Lodge redeems the genre in a nightmarishly masterful story that will haunt you long after you leave the cinema. And you know you are in store for a wild ride with the Hammer Films logo at the beginning! This film’s ominous feeling of dread isn’t the result of any violence or gore, but in just how uncomfortable you will feel in virtually every scene thanks to the brilliant atmosphere crafted by  directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala along with their cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis and the haunting score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. With all the “hands in the pot,” so to speak, one might think that the soup might get spoiled as the old maxim suggests–not so. All the technical elements work together seamlessly to bring this story of the far-reaching effects of trauma, guilt, and isolation to life when one loses a parent. While Wes Craven’s horror masterpiece Scream still ranks the highest for me in terms of the most shocking and effective openings of all time, in not only horror, but in cinema period, the opening of The Lodge culminates in something big and scaring! And it’s that moment that sets our cast of characters on a journey that will test the limits of their sanity. The exploration of the limits of sanity through the lenses of loss and trauma is visualized in a very Shining manner, with influences from Hereditary as well. Both of these films clearly influenced the feeling and look of this film. Thankfully, these influences never take the focus away from The Lodge‘s original story. The American horror film is the best genre for forcing us to face our most primal fears and those that are created by traumatic experiences in our past. Ghosts of the past have a way of never truly going away.

During a family retreat to a remote winter cabin over the holidays, a father (Richard Armitage) is forced to abruptly depart for work, leaving his Aiden (Jaeden Martell) and Mia (Lia McHugh), his two children, in the care of his new girlfriend Grace (Riley Keough). Isolated and alone, a blizzard traps them inside the lodge as terrifying events summon specters from Grace’s dark past (IMDb). 

The production design and cinematography are truly standout technical elements in this incredibly uneasy experience. If you were to combine the lines and angles of The Shining with the mood and camera movement of Hereditary, then the product would be the aesthetic of The Lodge. I absolutely love the wide shots accentuating the high ceilings, creatively breaking the “rule of thirds,” and closeups of the miniature cabin and figurines. By blocking the scenes so that the architectural and interior design lines of the house frame out the characters and locations, our focus is naturally drawn to a particular element in the scene that the camera often lingers on as unsettling music plays. Those lingering moments contribute to the rising tension and create a hyperawareness that assaults our very senses. I love how the feeling of claustrophobia is crafted out of the large houses and wide sweeping landscape of the mountain retreat. So much attention was paid to the stylistic approach to realizing this story for the screen. You could remove all the dialogue, and understand everything that is happening, and exhibit the emotional reaction that the writers and directors intended. That is the mark of superb visual storytelling.

Catholic iconography adorns many of the walls of the the family’s main house as well as the isolated vacation lodge. We spend most of our time in the lodge, but the houses at the beginning of the film also contain much of the same decor. Without need of exposition through dialogue, the various iconography paints an image of a Catholic family that has been split. Tho, we are never given the details of the separation between the father and the mother of his children (played by Alicia Silverstone), infidelity is hinted at because of the father’s girlfriend that he is planning to marry even before his divorce is finalized. It’s this urge to hasten the divorce that nullifies any hope of reconciliation between Richard (the father) and Laura (the first wife), and ultimately drives Laura to respond in a–how should I say–rash and irreversible manner that is seen as the unpardonable sin by the Catholic church. Her decision is like a rock tossed in a still, glass-like pond that is the catalyst for ripples that radiate for hundreds of yards. It’s no secret that divorce is also highly frowned upon by the Catholic church, so the domestic struggles and the fallout therein creates strife within the minds of the family. A disconnect, if you will, between what they believe and what they are experiencing. Interestingly, suicide is never referred to as an unpardonable sin in the Bible, nor is any one sin greater than another. But Jaeden and Mia suffer from the misleading interpretation many leaders in the Catholic church preach to their congregations. The symptoms of trauma exhibited by Aiden and Mia stem from the void that the loss of a parent and the disruption of life often causes. So, the decorations in the houses serve as a contrast to what is going on. And in more ways than one.

The soon to be fiance Grace is left to care for the two children at the family lodge after Richard has to return to the city for work. And she arrives with a lot of religious baggage of her own caused by a destructive cult masquerading around as a form of Christianity that she “escaped” when she was a child. The religious iconography in the lodge ignites a constant barrage of flashbacks to the psychological abuse during her childhood by her father, the leader of the cult that warped the Bible and belief therein for sadistic purposes. These masochistic and sadistic practices included misinterpreting the Bible in such a way that her father engaged in guilting and forcing people into experiencing physical pain and mental anguish over sin in order to be forgiven. Talk about trauma on the mind and soul. In addition to the emotional baggage of her past, Grace is also dealing with the hatred of the children directed towards her in rather sadistic fashion because they blame her for the divorce that led to the sudden death of their mother. We are often predisposed to thinking of step mothers as villains, thanks to Cinderella. But in this case, the tables are turned for much of the film. To talk about just why this is, would get into spoiler territory, and it’s best to go into this movie as blind as possible.

You will be in a suspended state of unease and high tension the entire time. Just when the tension releases, another moment drives it back up again. The horror of this film does not come from the raw imagery but from the psychological games on display that suck you in to vicariously experience the utterly terrifying, mentally scaring conflict displayed on screen. The Lodge is highly disturbing and will continue to haunt you long after the credits role.

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 or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, feel free to catch a movie with him!

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“Joker” Film Review

A truly phenomenal motion picture with a tour de force lead performance and relevant social commentary for today’s audience. Warner Bros’ highly anticipated Joker opens everywhere this week. Once again, we get an origin story of Batman’s favorite nemesis. Only this time, it’s told through an extremely heavy film that is less about the violence, that so many seem to be fixated on, and more about the unapologetic character study of someone whom has suffered egregious psychological and physiological trauma at the hands of those whom are supposed to be loving caregivers, friends, or mental health professionals. Prepare yourself to go down the rabbit hole of the mind of a madman in this no holds barred exploration of the far reaching effects of untreated trauma, grief, and schizophrenia. From a critical perspective of analyzing this as a motion picture, I find there is so much to admire! If I was to grade this film on a 1 to 10 scale, it would honestly be 8s, 9s, and 10s across the board. But you know what, if I am to be perfectly candid with my readers, I did not particularly care for the story, lack of likable characters, or even this iteration of The Joker. While I cannot deny the critical achievement of this motion picture (or film), as a movie, I did not care for it. I know some may use the terms film and movie interchangeably, but I often differentiate between them when drawing a distinction between art and entertainment. Some movies are both. For example, since we are in the Batman universe for this one, I will point out that my favorite Batman movie is equal parts film and movie, an “arthouse film masquerading around as a superhero movie,” and that would be Batman Returns. Even after watching Joker, my favorite iteration of the iconic character is still Jack Nicholson’s in Batman (89). That being said, Joaquin Phoenix is acting circles around Jack in this film and blows us away with his spectacular performance as this version of Joker.

Forever alone in a crowd, failed comedian Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) seeks connection as he walks the streets of Gotham City. Arthur wears two masks — the one he paints for his day job as a clown, and the guise he projects in a futile attempt to feel like he’s part of the world around him. Isolated, bullied and disregarded by society, Fleck begins a slow descent into madness as he transforms into the criminal mastermind known as the Joker. (IMDb)

This film is extremely heavy. Usually I don’t make it a point to mention that element of a film; but in the case of this one, it is important that you go in knowing what’s in store for you. Joker is both a character study and an exploration of our present day society as viewed through a 1980s lens. It also sets up Batman, but that is only a small part of this film. Prior to reviewing the performance of Phoenix, I feel it’s important for me to mention that I don’t see him as portraying The Joker as much as I do an authentic, genuine, terrifying madman. It’s no surprise to my readers that I prefer the Burtonverse to the Nolanverse when talking Batman, so my Bat-par is set by 89 and Returns. Nicholson is the standard against which I measure up all other iterations of Joker. And suffice it to say, Joaquin Phoenix’ Joker is not Joker. A brilliant performance as a sociopath, a psychopath, or just plain crazed serial killer with a sordid past brought on by unimaginable trauma, YES; but “Joker,” he is not. Joker is not just a madman, he’s an intelligent, calculating, organized crime boss with a penchant for murder and mayhem that is told through exemplary, if not sinister, showmanship! At the end of the day, Joker is an entertainer. We love to watch him on screen, and even root for him sometimes. There is little reason to root for this Joker. He may start out as an underdog who kills two men in defense; but then starting with the third victim, he is just interested in killing, anarchy, and watching the world burn. He lacks what we love about this iconic villain, and for that reason, I do not feel that this he IS Joker.

While I may not see Phoenix as portraying The Joker (and this has much more to do with the screenplay than his performance), his performance as this madman is off-the-charts great and could possibly be the best performance delivered by Phoenix ever. There is an unapologetic, candidness about this performance that feels incredibly genuine–no pretense about it. Phoenix is 110% committed to this character and stays true to Arthur Fleck the entire time. He is vulnerable and terrifying all at the same time. When analyzing the performance of Phoenix, I am reminded of Norma Desmond’s lines from Sunset Boulevard when she states “my eyes, I can say anything with my eyes” and “we didn’t need dialogue, we had faces.” Phoenix could have played a mute Arthur Fleck, and we would still have known precisely what he was thinking and more importantly feeling. He embodies the sage screenwriting words of “dramatize, don’t tell.” Phoenix is consistently committed to the character of Arthur Fleck from beginning to end. And I say “Arthur Fleck” because I don’t believe him to be portraying The Joker. In an exchange on Twitter with my friend Jeremiah that I had (as I was writing), I was reminded of what I learned in geometry, “every square is a rectangle, but not every rectangle is a square.” From that we can extrapolate that a theory could be “every Joker is a madman, but not every madman is The Joker.” I’ve seen a lot of great performances over the decades, but I can honestly say that this lead performance by a male actor is among the best I’ve ever witnessed. Perhaps Nicholson is still my favorite Joker, but Phoenix’ Joker is certainly the most realistic portrait of the descent from slightly crazy to utter destructive madness to the point that one laughs as the world implodes around them.

Joker is rich with poignant thought-provoking social commentary on our current state of affairs (albeit exaggerated) as the divide between the rich and poor is growing ever so rapidly. Just as American Psycho used the self-centered, consumer-centric, self-indulgent late 1980s to comment on the late 90s//early 2000s, this film also uses the early 1980s lens to comment on the late 2010s/early 2020s. The choice to use the early 1980s as the setting isn’t only because 80s is popular right now, what with Stranger ThingsAmerican Horror Story 1984IT, and more, it’s because it was a highly transitional time in the country. The 1960s was pretty much peaceful, the 1970s was experimental that turned chaotic, and everything came to a head in the early 80s before the economy turned around and the late 80s ushered in the bountiful, progressive 1990s. So the choice to set this film in the inner city of the early 1980s allows it to comment on similar issues that are plaguing us today. Perhaps not to this extreme, but we encounter conflicts that parallel the ones outlined in the film. Instead of treating mental illness, often our society masks it with medication or hides it from view to deal with it later (only later never comes). The rich just keep getting richer, and the poor just keep getting poorer, all while the rich blame the poor for their circumstances and standby and watch the lower rungs on the ladder just fall off; survival of the fittest, one might say. Self-centeredness runs rampant throughout the streets of Gotham as it does in our own cities and towns today. Everyone is so concerned with themselves that they stop to think about building a community that builds up one another to construct a society that is just as much about the quality of life for its citizens as it is the produces and services it can crank out. How do you view our world? As a factory or as a community?

I wish I had known just how heavy this film was going to be before I watched it, as I was not prepared for how dark it was. There are no moments of levity in this film, which I find to be particularly dangerous for audiences. As a screenwriting lecturer, I remind my students that it’s important to use levity strategically even in dark dramas or horror movies. It serves the purpose of not leaving the audience in a depressed state and allows for the writer to deliver an impactful punch when the audience least expects it. Levity relieves negative stress and resets the emotional barometer. I was feeling so oppressed by the tone of this film that I nearly left the cinema because I couldn’t’ take the darkness anymore. And that says a lot, considering that I watch a lot of dark movies and TV shows. Beyond the absence of levity, there aren’t any likable characters. To put it bluntly, everyone is an asshole. The treatment of everyone’s fellow man is despicable. It’s important for a film to establish one or more characters that the audience can identify with and even root for, but I find that everyone is so unlikable that I cannot connect with any of them. Yes, those whom have experienced trauma will likely identify with Arthur, but even he offers nothing redeeming or endearing. Unfortunately, Joker is a film that I may never watch again, despite praising it for its critical achievement as a motion picture.

If you are searching for a film that offers a prolific amount of content for purposes of a character study or cinematic study, then this is an excellent one to put on your list. Personally, I did not care for the story even though by all measurable accounts it’s a great film. But I suppose sometimes there comes along films that we acknowledge for their artistic and critical achievement but do not necessarily need to see again.

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 or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, feel free to catch a movie with him!

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