Metro Weekly

Film Review: ‘The Land of Owls’ is a measured alternative to summer blockbusters

Two struggling couples commune with nature and test their bonds in the quietly affecting "The Land of Owls."

Land of Owls: Emma Lahti, Blake DeLong, Ronald Peet
Land of Owls: Emma Lahti, Blake DeLong, Ronald Peet

Like a gentle, loping folk song, The Land of Owls (★★★☆☆) is a definite mood. A measured alternative to the blockbuster action and spectacle fare of summer, writer-director Patrick Letterii’s feature debut evokes the tranquility and reflection one might garner on a hot, lazy weekend spent at a rustic Catskills retreat.

The couples’ retreat depicted here, where partners wear plain white uniforms and “dig deeper” to get in touch with their feelings and each other, might sound more like torture than tranquility to some. But millennial couples Cord (Ricardo Dávila) and Gene (Ronald Peet), and Julia (Emma Duncan) and Theo (David Rysdahl) arrive prepared to dig as deep as necessary to benefit from the touchy-feely exercises and therapies led by their mysterious, unnamed Counselor (Jasmin Walker).

The movie demands a certain openness to watching retreaters work through their yoga and therapy until they lower their guards and reveal why we’re here. Cracking the nut of what’s bothering each one of them takes time, with the Counselor patiently querying, “What do you need?”, “Who are you?”, and, of course, “Why are you here?” The movie’s tone is serious without getting heavy or maudlin, while the atmosphere around camp feels slightly cultish.

Letterii draws out the mysteries behind how the place operates, and what each couple is trying to fix in their respective relationships, just long enough to maintain some intrigue. Both couples apparently are having issues with sexual intimacy. More precisely, Cord seems dissatisfied with his and Gene’s sex life, and Julia seems dissatisfied with Theo’s and hers.

As Cord opens up to Gene, Dávila’s slow-simmering performance does most of the lifting to keep that pair’s drama interesting. At first, their discord appears to be a boring case of Gene’s workaholic ways interfering with their love connection — until a more complex issue is brought to light.

Land of Owls: Blake DeLong
Land of Owls: Blake DeLong

As Julia and Theo, who tend to run hot one minute and cold the next, Duncan and Rysdahl invest the couple’s dynamic with a convincing volatility. She gets the bigger emotional scenes, but it’s Rysdahl’s quiet portrayal of Theo’s confusion that leaves a stronger impression. Similarly, Walker’s Counselor, soft-spoken yet authoritative, holds our attention by holding back, a glint in her eye always signaling a thought or intention unspoken.

Truths and revelations spill out over the weekend, between sunset dinners on the patio and early morning canoe rides on the river. The couples share poetry around a fire, and in voiceover, while the film, and cinematographer Nona Catusanu, capture the poetry of their natural surroundings.

It all seems idyllic, yet somehow suspicious. The property overlaps with another rustic compound, consisting of overgrown gardens tended by elderly farmers on “silent retreat.” Is that the next, or final, stop for folks who become uncoupled at the couples’ retreat? Let’s ask the two attractive, unexplained singletons floating among our couples.

Letterii stirs the plot with the two unattached retreaters: outdoorsy Paul (Blake DeLong), who strikes up a bromance with Theo, and the friendly, again unnamed, guitar-playing woman (Emma Lahti), who develops a rapport with Julia. Whether they’re employees or participants at the retreat, these two appear to be, each in their own way, drifting or in a holding pattern in their lives, either stuck at this camp or relieved to have found a safe spot to land. Letterii paces out the answers to all their questions, and ours, in a subtle, elegant dance that rewards sincere reflection, and leaves none of them standing in the same spot where they started.

The Land of Owls is available for streaming Friday, August 17 through AppleTV, iTunes, and Amazon. Visit www.firstrunfeatures.com.

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