Twelve years after her last feature film, Jane Campion demonstrates masterly vision and control in her adaptation of Thomas Savage’s novel. Guest House Owner Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst) marries mild-mannered rancher George Burbank (Jesse Plemons), soon coming afoul of his abusive and cruel brother, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch). As tensions grow her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) becomes crucial to tipping the fragile balance of power in the household.
What is most remarkable about Campion’s film is the pervasive sense of menace. Much like Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will be Blood, the tension stems from the shifting of power throughout members of the family. Phil dominates the early sequences, Cumberbatch driving the action with his commanding and assured performance. Rose’s arrival undermines his authority and provides status to his inept brother George. Dunst absorbs the malice thrown her way and her performance becomes sullen and exhausted. She’s a tragic figure who’s fate inspires her son Peter, with Smit-McPhee offering a delicately sinister turn.
The film is interested in the old west meeting the new world and in interrogating notions of masculinity. The world of the ranch is one of men. They drink together, laugh together, and are happiest when singling somebody out as being different or weak. Phil rules over this boisterous kingdom with unquestioned authority, and yet there are subtle hints at homosexual leanings beneath his bravura. His abrupt attitude change towards Peter can be explained in many ways. Like the rest of the characters in this drama, he is a mysterious figure. Phil meanwhile has achieved a level of happiness of his own but is mocked by others for his perceived coddled lifestyle. He yearns to earn the respect of those who laugh at him,
Music is presented as a signifier of one’s ability to blend in to higher society. Rose is expected to perfect her abilities at the piano to impress important visitors. Her inability to perform singles her out as an unworthy match for George. Phil, however, is a talented banjo player. In spite of his barbs and insults he is noted as a master of polite conversation. He is a cultured man who has no interest in playing his role for the benefit of guests. Rose aspires to what Phil takes for granted.
There’s a mythological feel to the film. The graceful filmmaking places this Greek Tragedy amidst the sublime, ancient landscapes of the west. The film builds towards a tragic climax and makes the weight of this finale felt throughout. It is never clear where the danger will finally emerge, leaving the viewer adrift. Campion has returned to the big screen with a truly cinematic story of family, resentment and power. It’s a fascinating and enigmatic depiction of how power can affect the actions and psychology of desperate and disaffected people. It’s a performance driven masterpiece that demands repeated viewings to explore it’s dark and complex spaces.