Sunday, April 21, 2013

Crawl of the Wild

Top of the Lake is a Jane-Campion back-woods fever-dream that pulls together the hypnosis and dread of Deliverance with the static, beautiful creep of David Lynch at his best (not just one of his movies, but all of them in different modes and variations).  Campion directed The Piano and Portrait of a Lady, among other movies, but Top of the Lake is a sprawling, crazy, pretentious and gorgeous mini-series (that first appeared on Sundance Channel, and is available On Demand and on Netflix now) that feels like a huge novel, or better yet an encyclopedia of sexual politics, abuse, power, and powerlessness. 
Every scene in this thing is a composite of two forces (usually innocence versus meanness, in the guise of female and male) smelling one another out until some horrible repercussions are conjured and dramatized.  All of these scenes take place in a setting that is glamorously rural, menacingly prehistoric:  a haunted New Zealand so beautiful you could swear it's CGI, but then when you look closer you can almost feel it's not.  Elizabeth Moss plays Robin, a police detective with enough skeletons in her closet to warrant a museum.  Her face has a glum, half-crazy bluntness to it that seems to mimic the very atmosphere, and Moss' New-Zealand accent is impeccable, but even better than vocal verisimilitude is the way her acting buttresses the strangeness Campion creates.  Robin is pulled into an investigation of a pregnant 12-year-old girl, whose father turns out to be a tyrant whose horrors are commonplace and petty, the signature of a tortured soul.  Peter Mullan plays the son of a bitch with a menace and a mundanity that allows you to glimpse the cowardly core of his soul and somehow feel completely connected to it.  He is the king of a world made up of gigantic whispering trees and ice-cold lakes the color of concussions, but he isn't comfortable with his power.  He seems terrified of it.  Against that dynamic, Campion gives us a camp of sadly lost ladies sleeping in box-cars next to mountains, shepherded by Holly Hunter's granny-haired ex-hippie.  The women are all examples of different kinds of abuse and neglect (both self-imposed and not), and they all wander around the camp like Diane Arbus subjects in search of whatever they think will get them through life. 
All of these elements combine into a sort of Henry-Darger/Nancy-Drew phantasmagoria that somehow, by the end of 9 hours of programming, becomes pure unadulterated art.
I just can't forget some of the scenes Campion has filmed, the moments that aren't really plot-related but somehow plot-inspired, or just plain inspired:  the white-trash drug-dealing sons of Matt flinging plastic chairs into a majestic waterfall (all framed in a window Matt is staring out of), the yellow weeds blowing outside the box-car encampment like frayed old hair, a mute-by-choice teen-aged boy with the words "no" written on one hand, "yes" on the other pulling a kayak out of the woods and into a bitter-colored lake.  It all sounds precious and a little too much, and it is, but it also feels uniquely that way, as if meant to be, not fashioned to impress.  I think Campion often seemed contained and a little mannered in her other movies.  In this one, she has let loose the hounds of hell, and they bark and bite in a sedatedly horrifying way.  Campion's vision really benefits from that slow pace, the stare she has going.  You get caught up not in the makeshift and kind of wobbly plot, but in the scenes.  The scenes, in fact, kind of erase the plot as they advance it.  By the end, mainly all you feel is the crawl of the wild, and a sort of awe at how terrible and sweet and nasty and gigantic the world actually is when you look at it long enough.