Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.5
United Kingdom/Australia/USA/Canada/New Zealand, 2021. See-Saw Films, Brightstar, Max Films International, BBC Films, Cross City Films, New Zealand Film Commission. Screenplay by Jane Campion, based on the novel by Thomas Savage. Cinematography by Ari Wegner. Produced by Jane Campion, Iain Canning, Roger Frappier, Tanya Seghatchian, Emile Sherman. Music by Jonny Greenwood. Production Design by Grant Major. Costume Design by Kirsty Cameron. Film Editing by Peter Sciberras.
Jane Campion returns to feature filmmaking for the first time since her 2009 romantic drama Bright Star, and does so with a revisionist western that has minimal action on the surface but simmers with rage beneath every frame. Rancher brothers Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons couldn’t be more opposite, the former a cruel and unforgiving brute who thinks nothing of coming to the dinner table caked in manure, the latter a perpetual gentleman who puts on a suit and tie for breakfast. While transporting their herd to market they stop at a local restaurant run by single mother Kirsten Dunst and her teenaged son Kodi Smit-McPhee; Plemons falls in love with her and brings her home to his ranch, which Cumberbatch believes she agreed to because she’s hungry for the family’s money. While doing everything he can to make her feel unwelcome, Cumberbatch befriends Smit-McPhee, at first giving the boy a hard time for not being manly enough before seeming to form an attachment that suggests that this rough and tumble cowboy is as much a victim of his toxic-masculinity performance as he is a purveyor of it. Cumberbatch has all the unapologetic, fiery intensity necessary for the role, not to mention the command and charisma, but it’s unclear whether or not his character comes off as a kind of American West drag because it’s being played by a Brit who can’t hide his Britishness, or if this is a skin that the character himself puts on to deal with the world (which side you fall on will likely depend on your feelings about the actor himself). Campion boldly presents a spare and deceptively uneventful plot in which actors are presented in solitude against wide open spaces that help highlight the tempests of frustration and rage pouring out of them, pushed to the brink of madness in the desert-like flatness of Montana. The best of them is Dunst, whose character tries not to be unnerved by the opposition that Cumberbatch presents but is trapped in her vulnerability by a steadily increasing dependence on alcohol. Watching the many levels of emotion play across her face is as fascinating and magnificent a landscape as the visual backdrops of this haunting and powerful film.
Venice Film Festival Award: Best Director (Jane Campion)