Cast and crew:
Phil Burbank is played by Benedict Cumberbatch.
Rose Gordon is played by Kirsten Dunst.
George Burbank is played by Jesse Plemons.
Peter Gordon is played by Kodi Smit-McPhee.
Lola is played by Thomasin McKenzie.
Mrs. Lewis is played by Genevieve Lemon.
Governor Keith Carradine Old Lady Burbank is played by Edward Frances Conroy.
Old Gent Burbank is played by Peter Carroll.
Governor Edward’s wife is played by Alison Bruce.
Ane Campion’s first feature film in over a decade is a mysterious, malicious western gothic psychodrama with a lethal conclusion that creeps up behind you like a thief. Fans of Campion will enjoy the scenes in which a huge piano is carried into the uncivilized wild; eight philistine broncos are needed to heave this into the ranch parlor, owner of the desert’s cultural totem. And it is for this reason that the new lady of the house, played by Kirsten Dunst, attempts to master Strauss’s Radetzky March, while her sarcastically maligned brother-in-law (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), deliberately discourages her from playing it on his banjo as well – thus disconcertingly revealing that, despite his rough ways, he is truly rather more musically talented than she is.
The setting is 1920s Montana, in which two brothers run a profitable ranch: charismatic but obnoxious Phil Burbank (Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons), who dresses and hats fancier than sweaty Phil and strives to the high social standing of his elderly parents, who evidently invested in the business. Phil, a natural bully, refers to his brother as “fatso,” encourages his men to mock him, and is infatuated with the fact that George is parasitically dependent on Phil’s tough competence, which he learned from a personable rancher named ‘Bronco’ Henry, whom he once adored and who taught him the trade. However, loneliness, dysfunction Phil is emotionally level reliant on his quiet, honorable brother, and these adult men share a guest room throughout their big house.
So Phil is outraged once George gets married to a widow from town: Rose (an excellent performance from Dunst), a defunct cinema piano-player now able to run a cafe with a sensitive teenage son named Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who waits tables and creates intricate paper flowers, much to Phil’s sneering homophobic abuse. Nonetheless, Phil is mesmerised by Peter’s delicate papery fronds, which have a visual resemblance to the strips of rawhide from which he later fashions a menacing rope. Phil makes it his business to harass and abuse Rose as she spirals into alcoholism and depression, but he also appears to take an odd filial interest in Peter himself, offering to teach John to ride and take him on rides.
Campion has adapted Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel, which E Annie Proulx admired, and she has created something with an air of tragedy, dysfunction, and horror hanging over it. It’s like something out of Ibsen, especially when George invites his parents and their political friends over for a formal black-tie dinner, and poor, miserable Rose is psychologically unable to play the piano for them. It’s even a little like George Stevens’ Giant from 1956 (and perhaps if things had been different, the Peter role would have interested James Dean) – but Smit-McPhee brings something inscrutably complex and reserved to his character’s behavior, an opaque quality that delivers a retrospective mule-kick of significance after the big reveal. The audience is present.
Rose stumbles into the kitchen to speak with the chef, Mrs. Lewis (Geneviève Lemon), and housekeeper, Lola (Thomasin McKenzie) and is regaled with strange gossip and urban legends, including one about a dead woman for whom the hair continued to grow after she died, filling the coffin. You can almost feel Rose’s fear and empathy as she imagines herself as this woman now. This same power of the puppy is a work of artistry and command that ranks among Jane Campion’s best.