Jane Campion’s film doesn’t immediately reveal its face. It combines several genres: it is a western that immerses the viewer in the atmosphere of a cowboy ranch, it is also a thriller that creates an uncomfortable feeling of an impending tragedy. This is also a social drama that boldly raises several topical issues at once. The laws of these genres are quite familiar to an experienced viewer, and social issues are widely covered in all kinds of venues, so the director took the risk of making a rather opportunistic movie. However, Campion copes with the task with brilliance, not asking questions directly, but relying on the atmosphere. The restrained visual style achieved by director of photography Ari Wegner, the disturbingly detached music by Jonny Greenwood – the atmosphere of the film is both brutal and delicate and makes the tape not what it seems at first glance.
The plot is based on the conflict between the main character Phil Burbank and the new family of his brother George, who marries the widow Rose Gordon and brings her to the family nest. Soon Rose’s son Peter arrives here. Two new people in the family bring the tension that reigns in the house to the limit.
The personality of the main character, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, suggests the main theme of the film. This is toxic masculinity at its most extreme. Phil Burbank is the head of the family, the owner of a very successful business, a man of invincible authority. The perfect protagonist of a western, if not macho. And it seems that life always goes according to its rules, inevitably poisoning the existence of people dependent on it.
The first to experience its toxic influence is the heroine Kirsten Dunst. We see her not the happiest, but an active, largely independent, independent woman who, although not ideally, still copes with her difficult life. Once in the Burbank house, she does not withstand the aggression and pressure of Phil and, against the backdrop of depression, turns into an alcoholic. Her fall is so irresistible that it almost does not cause sympathy. Definitely one of the best roles of Kirsten Dunst.
And how contrasting against this background is the secondary character, Rose’s son Peter. This character stands out from other men. He is not masculine, he is a stranger to the world of physical strength, his non-masculine appearance will hardly allow him to fit into the world of cowboys. The film persistently creates the feeling that he will be the inevitable victim of homophobia. However, it gradually becomes obvious that only this character has invaluable inner freedom, since he is well aware that he does not fit in, and he is not at all going to adapt to other people’s rules. The expectations of others are not enough reason for him to cheat on himself. He is convinced that he can and has the right to build his life on his own terms.
Impressive choice of actor for this role. Australian actor Cody Smith-McPhee describes his appearance as rather feminine in an interview and, like his character, finds it important to be himself. In a world dominated by masculinity, this is still a bold statement that resonates with the meaning and message of the film, and the actor has brilliantly managed to bring this controversial image to life on screen. An expected and well-deserved Oscar nomination.
And it is with the advent of Peter that the director allows the main character to gradually begin to reveal his inner world. Through their interaction, Phil Burbank’s repressed homosexuality becomes apparent. The need to hide one’s orientation is absolutely irresistible. A strict patriarchal society, intolerant of those who are even slightly different, will not allow Phil even to himself to admit the true motives of his behavior. It is difficult to imagine how great this burden is, if even a hint of a possible friendship with a newly-made nephew significantly softens the heart of a harsh cowboy.
The hero of Cumberbatch is changing before our eyes, causing sympathy and giving rise to hope for a happy ending. However, the film is not so simple. Unable to live and express himself freely, Phil destroys his life and relationships with loved ones. This is what Jane Campion calls the main theme of the film: deep hidden desires that destroy us.