Jane Campion’s first feature film in over a decade is a western gothic psychodrama with a lethal ending. A large piano is carried into an uncivilized wilderness by eight philistine cowboys and heaved into the ranch-parlour, owner’s the culture totem in the desert. On this, the new lady of the house (Kirsten Dunst) tries to master Strauss’ Radetzky March, while her snide new brother-in-law (Benedict Cumberbatch) deliberately annoys her by playing it on his banjo, thus revealing that despite his rough ways, he is actually a better musician than she is. A five-string banjo picking since Deliverance.
Aspiring to the high social standing of his elderly parents who evidently staked them in the business, George (Jesse Plemons) wears a fancier style of clothing and millinery than sweaty Phil Burbank (Cumberbatch). To make matters worse, Phil is obsessed with the fact that George is dependent on Phil’s tough competence, which he learned from a charismatic rancher named ‘Bronco’ Henry who taught him the trade. They share a room in their big house like kids because Phil is lonely and dysfunctional.
In response, Phil sneers homophobic abuse at George’s marriage to a town widow, Rose (an excellent performance by Dunst), who runs a cafe with her sensitive teenage son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). But Phil is mesmerized by Peter’s delicate papery fronds, which resemble the rawhide strips from which he makes a menacing rope. After Rose moves in, Phil harasses and abuses her, driving her to depression and alcoholism, but then takes an odd fatherly interest in Peter, offering to teach him to ride and take him out into the remote hills to teach him rancher ways, just as ‘Bronco’ allegedly did to him.
It’s an unconventional story that deviates from the norm, but the result is intriguing and disturbing.