I would likely watch The Land 1,000 times again just to watch Herman Johansen's mesmerizing performance as John Martin, a sixty-something farmer coming face-to-face with mistakes from the past and an uncertain future in Stephen Wallace Pruitt's latest feature film.
John lives alongside his wife, Mary Lou (Kathleen Warfel), on the farm that they've tended for a good majority of their adult lives. It's a farm that is now in jeopardy, an all too common occurrence in a country where the farm crisis was one of its biggest stories until the COVID-19 pandemic as farmers are known to have suicide rates over twice that of even veterans.
While The Land is very much set in the world of rural farming, there's a universal message at work here as more and more people are faced with losing their way in an unpredictable world where circumstances beyond their control turn what seemed like predictable lives into wildly unpredictable ones. As the poster for The Land asks quite bluntly - Are we more than what we do?
It's definitely a question that John is asking himself as he's faced with an increasingly uncertain future that he always assumed would be certain. Suicide always exists on the fringes of The Land, a not surprising fact as Pruitt has never been shy about inserting harsh realities into what may otherwise seem like idyllic settings.
Indeed, The Land captures the beauty of this rural setting in a pretty magnificent way. We begin to understand the complicated grief going on here precisely because we begin to form our own relationship with this land that is both amazing farm land and so obviously a well loved, well lived in home.
However, what really sells it all is Johansen's tremendous performance as John, a stoic and proud man who's been unable to acknowledge his need for help even to his closest friends or, for that matter, even his son (Davis DeRock). The beauty of Johansen's performance is that amidst that stoicism you can see the cracks in his facade and the underlying emotions - the sense of failure, both personal and professional, and the absolute lack of awareness over what he's to do next.
While Johansen's performance was mesmerizing, Kathleen Warfel perfectly wore the role of the loyal farm wife lost in her own experiences and struggling with her own sense of hanging on. Warfel's performance is simultaneously warm yet strong, vulnerable yet resolute.
Longtime Pruitt collaborator Joicie Appell is back again, this time as a family friend with spiritual wisdom and an essential goodness that makes you feel like you've probably known her for years. Laura Kirk also shines as Pastor Hale, a rather sublime smalltown pastor whose church you'll likely want to go to yourself.
Lensing by Pruitt and Michael Lopez is pristine and wisely avoids the usual grittiness that this type of motion picture often projects.
There are moments, fortunately fleeting ones, when The Land waxes a bit melodramatically but for the most part this is an earthy, natural film that captures the real life struggles of a family facing a challenge they never thought they'd face and how that challenge impacts their relationships, their connections, their sense of identity, and their mental health.
While the world is dominated by COVID-19 in the news these days, The Land is a powerful reminder that many of the country's economic fractures were already going on in a world where longtime family businesses were at risk and where hard work doesn't necessarily guarantee an honest wage.
Recently released on streaming including Amazon Prime, you can check out The Land for yourself now.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic