Greetings again from the darkness. Don’t mess with the smart ones, as brains often outlast brawn. I’m conflicted on how best to describe this film. Perhaps … It’s nuanced storytelling at its finest. Jane Campion won an original screenplay Oscar for THE PIANO (1993), while also becoming only the second woman to receive a nomination as Best Director. This is her 8th feature film to direct, and the first since the underrated BRIGHT STAR (2009). Ms. Campion is such a smooth filmmaker, and her latest is so expertly crafted and so beautifully filmed, that some may find themselves not recognizing the underlying tension between characters. I urge you to remain diligent and take note of the subtle gestures and facial expressions, as the emotions run deep.
Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Phil Burbank. He runs a successful cattle ranch with his brother George, played by Jesse Plemons. Though they sleep in the same room and have been driving cattle together for 25 years, the brothers couldn’t be less alike. George is a soft-spoken man with few needs or aspirations other than wishing to not grow old alone. He lives in the shadow of his formidable brother, an educated man with a domineering personality. Phil is constantly proving how tough and macho he is by bullying others, even calling his more sensitive brother “Fatso”. That thundering you hear is Phil purposefully slamming his heels into the wood floors so that his spurs never stop jangling.
Phil is playing a game that only he knows the rules to. George bows his head in shame as he hears Phil belittle the frail and effeminate teenage Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who is waiting on their table at the Red Mill. Peter’s widowed mother Rose (Kirsten Dunst) owns the place, and after George provides some comfort to her, George and Rose secretly marry. Viewing this as a personal affront, Phil is merciless in his cruelty towards Rose and Peter. It turns out that Phil is masquerading as one thing in order to hide another truth. An intriguing sequence (that is so well acted I could watch it 10 times) leads to a warming of the relationship between Phil and Peter. The two bond over horseback riding, rope-braiding, and stories of Phil’s now-deceased ‘mentor’, Bronco Henry.
This setting is 1925 Montana, though it’s filmed in New Zealand. The majestic mountain range constantly looms on the horizon. Yet despite the beauty, it’s a tough life made tougher by Phil’s menacing behavior – psychological torturing of Rose that leads her to the bottle – something that clearly holds unfavorable memories. The four leads are truly outstanding, and supporting work is provided by Thomasin McKenzie as the young housekeeper, and Keith Carradine, Frances Conroy, Allison Bruce, and Peter Carroll as uncomfortable guests at a dinner party.
Jonny Greenwood provides the music. It’s not so much a score as it is mood-enhancing messaging through guitars, violins, and pianos – each piece delivering just the right note. Cinematographer Ari Wegner (THE TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG, 2019) works seamlessly with director Campion to capture the shifts in tone and the minutiae of the performances. An early shot through the kitchen windows captures Phil strutting through the ranch. The shot is repeated later with a contrasting look. The film is based on the 1967 novel by Thomas Savage, and it includes some of his personal experiences. Nothing haunts us more than the lingering effect of words Peter provides as narration near the film’s opening, when he informs us that a real man must save his mother. Oh yes, this is nuanced storytelling at its finest. By the way, you know how to whistle, don’t you?
Streaming on Netflix