The wonderfully freewheeling, peripatetic road movie Land Ho!, spanning the vast, rich Icelandic landscape, marks the first collaboration between two talented independent filmmakers: Martha Stephens (Passenger Pigeons, Pilgrim Song) and Aaron Katz (Dance Party USA, Quiet City, Cold Weather).
Together, they have created a beautiful and quietly charming film, one not afraid of being small, in the sense of letting the naturalistic performances and atmosphere impress themselves on the audience, and not shoehorning in false melodrama or forced comedy. And although the buddy comedy road trip movie is a genre that is thoroughly well-worn at this point, Land Ho! is blissfully free of cliché and hackneyed retreads. Set to be released this summer, the film will serve as perfect counter-programming to whatever superhero movie is coming out that week.
The two central characters we follow are Colin (Paul Eenhorn), a man very recently divorced and still licking his wounds from the bitterness of that, and Mitch (Earl Lynn Nelson), just retired and flush with money from his retirement package. The two are ex-brothers-in-law (they had been married to sisters) and old friends who've reconnected after not seeing each other for a long while.
Mitch decides he has the perfect solution for lifting Colin out of his doldrums; he's bought two tickets to Iceland, where he's planned an adventure for them to stay in luxury hotels, eat at fine restaurants, and enjoy the hot springs, geysers, and other tourist attractions of the country. Colin objects at first, but agrees to go along with Mitch, who's footing the bill for everything, after all; also, it may do him good to be in a different environment for awhile.
The perfectly complementary yin-and-yang personalities of the two men - whose ages aren't specified but who appear to be in their mid-to-late 60s - are immediately apparent as soon as we encounter them. Colin is quiet, contemplative, and very low-key, while Mitch is brassy, loud, and given to finding sexual innuendo in any given situation. His manner would be wildly inappropriate, even offensive, if it wasn't delivered with such a charming Southern drawl.
There's not much of a plot at all in Land Ho!, and rather than being a weakness, this is one of its great strengths. We simply follow along on these two men's adventures, with helpful title cards situating us at each location, and watch their improvisational-feeling interactions with people they meet along the way.
They have an interesting dinner conversation, and an amusing night of nightclubbing, with two young women (Karrie Crouse and Elizabeth McKee), one of them a distant cousin of Mitch's. They also encounter an intoxicated guy (Icelandic rapper Emmsjé Gauti) who hands them glow sticks, which they later attempt to use as illumination when they get lost wandering the countryside at night. Also very amusingly, copious amounts of prime Icelandic weed are smoked during the course of the film, most of it by Mitch, who greatly enjoys (to use his term) indulging in "doobification."
More details of the two men's backstories are gradually revealed as the narrative progresses, but again, there are no huge dramatic moments or big epiphanies. The elegiac and somewhat melancholic aspects of aging and becoming more aware of one's mortality begin to seep through, but this is never overly stressed. The beauty of Iceland's landscape is an equal co-star to its actors, and the numerous montages (expected in road movies such as this) will definitely inspire some viewers to pursue trips of their own there. The landscape also serves as a fitting backdrop to the efforts of these two men to, as Mitch says, "get their groove back."
Land Ho! contains myriad pleasures, not the least of which are the central performances by veteran actor Paul Eenhorn (who gained much acclaim for last year's This Is Martin Bonner) and relative newcomer Earl Lynn Nelson (Martha Stephens' cousin, who appeared in her previous features). The two men make a fascinating pair, and are riveting enough not to need guidance by conventional plotting.
The cinematography by Andrew Reed (who's collaborated twice before with co-director Aaron Katz), makes quite breathtaking use of the natural landscape, but also is quite expressive in such interior spaces as restaurants and nightclubs. There is also quite a fine score by Keegan Dewitt, as well as well-chosen soundtrack songs, especially the perfect choice of Big Country's 80's pop classic "In a Big Country." Try, just try to get that song out of your head after seeing this film. I certainly couldn't.
Review originally published during the Tribeca Film Festival in April 2014. The film opens in select theaters in the U.S. on Friday, July 11, via Sony Pictures Classics. Visit the official site for more information.