Land Ho! is a joint directorial effort from Aaron Katz (Quiet City, Cold Weather) and Martha Stephens (Passenger Pigeons, Pilgrim Song) about two long-time friends who take an impromptu vacation to Iceland with the hopes of rediscovering themselves and their friendship.
The opening shot of Land Ho! sums up the essential theme of the movie more so than any of the gorgeous, dreamy landscapes of Iceland that follows. We hear the sounds of a vacuum cleaner over a black screen. Mitch (played by the unpredictable, Earl Lynn Nelson) is revealed, cleaning away, alone, in a small, dark bedroom. The sunlight streaming through the wide window behind him provides the only light in the room. Another man, Colin (Paul Eenhoorn) soon appears through the glass like an excited little boy ready to free his friend from the tyranny of responsibilities. But the dynamic of Colin as rescuer and Mitch as captor is reversed soon after; with Mitch being the out-going, blatantly perverted good ol’ boy to Colin’s quiet, slightly neurotic depressive. Only as the characters slowly reveal themselves and their vulnerabilities are we reminded of who is really saving whom.
We soon learn that the two men are ex-brothers-in-law, with Colin in town for a visit with Mitch in order to unwind and seek refuge from a fresh breakup with a younger woman. Mitch eventually reveals that he has purchased two first-class tickets to Iceland for a vacation in order to “re-charge”. Mitch, being the irrepressible force that he is, quickly convinces the equally unimpressed Colin to join him on this journey. And off they go!
Initially, the two men play it safe. They keep to each other and their hotel rooms and restaurants. The film does an excellent job of showing the isolation and distance one may feel in a strange, new world. But once they meet up with Mitch’s younger female cousin (who just happens to be swinging through Reykjavik), the trip, and the men, finally begins to open up. The men soon find themselves bouncing from drug-fueled raves to expensive spas and bed & breakfasts to rough camping and, eventually, to the famous Icelandic hot spring pools.
The magical setting, so stunningly photographed by DP Andrew Reed, is not merely a backdrop to the story. While the relationship between Colin and Mitch is the unquestioned heart here, the way in which they grow as men is additionally showcased through the widening and increasingly beautiful Icelandic landscapes. Katz & Stephens were wise to slowly reveal more and more of their surreal settings as the men equally became more comfortable in it.
Land Ho! is one of the most originally poignant meditations on friendship, loneliness, and aging in recent memory. The performances carry the film and Earl Lynn Nelson and Paul Eenhoorn have a difficult task of portraying two men who couldn’t be more polar opposites, while also never having the audience question the authenticity of their friendship. It is truly beautiful work by both men.
While the film may not appeal to the dismissive “nothing happens” crowd, anyone with a love of deliberately paced character studies that are more fascinated by the small moments of life, and do not rely on formal plot structure, will undoubtedly enjoy this film. Here’s to hoping that both Katz and Stephens have grown as artists by working so closely together, and get back to making their increasingly ambitious solo films.
Land Ho! was recently awarded the John Cassavetes Award for Best Feature under $500,000 at the 2015 Independent Spirit Awards.