Despite boasting a stellar cast, the most notable name for this project remains cinematic film director Jane Campion, not known for prolific output, bringing this story based on the novel by Thomas Savage to the screen.
The story follows two brothers, “Phil & George Burbank” (Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons) running a Montana cattle ranch in 1925. The two could not be more different, Phil a man’s man through and through, as tough and raw as the hides he creates. George appreciates the finer things in life, gentler and increasingly drifting away from his siblings limited world view.
Throwing the orderly routine into disorder, George falls for local widower “Rose” (Kirsten Dunst) who eventually moves into the family home, marooned in the middle of the extensive ranch. Rose brings her young son “Peter” (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a delicate, callow youth more prone to making flowers from paper than castrating bulls with a knife, Phil’s speciality.
Phil believes his brother has been stolen from him and seeks to persecute both Rose and Peter, with overt and psychological harassment, leading Rose to the bottle and Peter to withdraw further.
The film then takes a few turns, one may be intuited by the glances and subtext of characters actions and another may initially seem a stretch but in hindsight makes sense, following the initial voice-over.
Campion and Cinematographer Ari Wegner have captured the beautiful Central Otago (NZ) vista, standing in for Montana, highlighting the area’s beauty as the natural light changes. The film is slow and languid, allowing the lush landscapes to breathe, providing audience pleasure and frustration in equal measure.
The story takes time to unfold with all central actors providing great performances, notably Cumberbatch, almost unrecognisable from his usual persona. Smoking throughout and encouraging his ranchers to wolf whistle Peter, whilst deliberately mentally torturing his new sister-in-law. Phil is a man with issues and repressed desire, hinted at through the first part of the film, a poster boy for toxic masculinity.
Smit-McPhee plays a difficult role, on the surface perceived as weak and “unmanly”. Yet finding inner strength and courage to be who he desires to be, in a harsh world unaccepting of his more delicate ways. The film also messes with stereotypes, with audiences potentially making assumptions that are later examined and challenged.
Real life partners Dunst and Plemons round out the cast and provide solid support, although Dunst is largely relegated to looking distraught and Plemon’s character seemingly blissfully unaware of the tensions swirling around the family.
Arguably the landscape remains the stand out, possibly biased as the reviewer lives in this area, but captured brilliantly here, which on occasion threatens to overwhelm the central story.
Despite the beautiful cinematography and boasting impressive central performances, this may not be to everyone’s taste.
However for those with patience, this ultimately brings significant rewards for those not expecting fast action, something the Oscar’s may notice at awards time.
Available exclusively on Netflix after brief theatrical run