Land is a movie as simple and unprepossessing as its magnificently anonymous title. The film, the directorial debut of its star, Robin Wright, is not built for surprise: it takes a character, gives her an unspoken but extremely clear emotional trauma, and lets her work it out over the course of the film's running. Which is a breathtakingly tight 89 minutes, stripped of anything that doesn't need to be there (in fact, I would almost say - and here's something I only say maybe once every year or so - it would benefit from being 10 or 15 minutes longer, to make sure we understand the slow passage of time a bit better). Its entire plot, in all necessary detail, is "Edee wants to be alone and so goes to an isolated Wyoming cabin to live until she dies, which she clearly hopes will be soon; instead, she is given a new appreciation for being alive".

It's clean, solid filmmaking: it has some of the telltale signs of being the director's first work, but it does manage to avoid the exceedingly common actor-turned-director misstep of wallowing in go-nowhere dialogue scenes that feel like an acting class workshop. Indeed, part of what makes me admire Land as much as I do - and God help me, I do in fact admire this Sundance-premiering Land's End catalogue of a character study - is that for fully a third of its running time, it barely has any talking at all, presenting its scenario and its character solely as an accumulation of behaviors and conspicuously unspoken backstory. It does this through a slightly kinked-up chronology and imaginary figures blurring into the present, which allows us to learn that Edee's husband and son have both died, and her sister (Kim Dickens) is very concerned that she's going to harm herself; in the cabin, she seems to be visited by them, in a scene that's lit with dim, filtered blue lights, a strong contrast with the bright sunshine cinematographer Bobby Bukowski uses elsewhere in establishing the bright, open environment of the forest and mountains around the cabin.

The film's opening half hour works so well, in fact, that it set me up for a much more challenging, impressionistic feature than we end up getting. As Edee's silent shuffling around the cabin marks out the progression from fall to winter, the fragmented character study of the first act gives way to a plot: a bear breaks into Edee's cabin while she's out fishing, and ransacks her food supplies. And her best efforts to gather food thereafter aren't close to enough, especially given her reluctance to shoot a deer. And so she starts to run down of hunger and the cold, and prepares to die, only to be rescued by a local hunter, Miguel (Demián Bichir), and his nurse friend Alawa (Sarah Dawn Pledge). Once this happens, Land almost immediately becomes less interesting, turning into a pretty straightforward riff on the model of fellow Oscarbaity survival dramas Into the Wild and Wild; lots of short scenes, just a bit more substantial than montages, set to the pensive folksy music of Ben Sollee and Time for Three, in which Miguel shows Edee how do do the things that will keep her alive, interspersed with longer scenes of the two of them, or sometimes Edee alone, just sitting in the wilderness, reflecting, as the wind gently tickles the soundtrack.

None of this is terrible, which is largely thanks to Wright (in her capacity as an actor) and Bichir: they have a terrific rapport that manages to completely avoid the tacky, melodramatic implication of romance, instead favoring two people whose best skill in life is to quietly observe the world figuring out how to have meaningful conversations without giving anything away about themselves. In terms of Jessica Chatham and Erin Dignam's script, maybe not as much. Land is never trying to do very much as a story, just put across a simple situation cleanly and effectively, and that's generally fine for it; but it does grow a little, how to put it gently, excessively boring in the middle section, when there's enough plot to get in the way of the purely artful opening, and not enough to actually give the thing any significant forward momentum. And this is where the film could have done with that extra running time, because the big problem, I think, is that it just leaves itself with enough room to check off boxes: Edee has to learn to shoot, and she has to learn to set a snare, and she has to pull out guts, and she has to learn to like dogs, and all sorts of stuff.

The problem here is that those nice, tight 89 minutes are exactly long enough to only check boxes, so instead of getting a slowly blooming sense of Edee's life in the cabin, the film skips: "she did this and then this and then she was ready to grow up". The best sign I can give of how muddy the film's storytelling gets in the middle is that I thought I was paying very close attention to how time was being marked out subtly, mostly using just the change of the seasons, and while it seemed that they accidentally included a couple shots with autumn foliage in what should have been midsummer, I counted out one whole year - a nice, symbolic-ish amount of time for a plot like this to cover. Then Edee states in dialogue that she's been in the cabin for two years.

This isn't the only problem - there are also more than a couple of very nervously hand-holdy "well, she's going to say things out loud to nobody, because you do that, right? Because even though it's clear from context and Wright's body language what's happening, we still need to have her state it aloud, right?" moments. And while Wright-the-actress is absolutely the strongest tool in Wright-the-director's kit, leading to many very wonderful moments where the film just watches her face as an indefinable mixture of pride and sadness and contentment work across it, Wright-the-director is a little too indulgent with show-off moments that maybe don't add a lot to the movie. Still, given how easy it would be for this to be pure middlebrow pap, Land mostly works, and sometimes works quite well. What it understands best is the power of quiet and isolation, and its strongest moments do excellent work in letting Edee simply observe and exist in that isolation. Land is a gentle movie, well-built in an unextravagant way, and it's awfully pleasant and gratifying in its solid, straightforward way.

Also check out Rob & Carrie's video interview with Wright!