Jane Campion's "Top of the Lake" is an overwhelming experience. Maybe not if it's taken in one-hour chunks, which is how it aired on the Sundance Channel, but if you watch it on Netflix Instant in one fell swoop, you're liable to emerge on the other side with your head still in the foggy clouds of New Zealand. I can only imagine how anyone seeing it at Sundance earlier this year felt after sitting through all 353 minutes with nothing to interrupt the immersion save for the occasional bathroom break.
The simplest way to describe the plot sounds like the makings of a really long "Law and Order: SVU" episode: A 12-year-old named Tui tries to drown herself in a lake, and it's only after she's rescued that the adults around her notice she's five months pregnant. The nearly silent pre-teen rides off into the wilderness on a horse with nothing but some supplies, a shotgun, and her snappy Chihuahua at her side. And that's when Campion and Gerard Lee's story goes sprawling in every direction, much like the mountains and bush surrounding Tui's small hometown of Lake Top.
Detective Robin Griffin, played by “Mad Men” star Elisabeth Moss, is visiting her dying mother when the head of the Queenstown Police Station, Al Parker, calls on her to help with the investigation. Right away, Robin's thrust back into the uber-masculine environment she grew up in, a murky stew of hard drugs and shotguns presided over by Tui's grizzled dad Matt. In a poor town bristling with barely sublimated sexual rage, Matt is the scariest of them all — an impressive feat, but given that Peter Mullen has convincingly played psychos in approximately all of his prior roles, it’s not hard to believe.
At the edge of the town lies Paradise, a little plot of land that Matt was meaning to buy. His mother is buried there, and he likes to flagellate himself with the belt he leaves draped on top of her grave (as you do). One morning, like magic, a compound full of New Age-y women settle on the property in packing containers. Holly Hunter, who won an Oscar for her performance in Campion's "The Piano," plays their reluctant leader GJ. She has no time for these women who sit around her meditating or prattling on about their ex-husbands (or, in one woman's case, her pet chimp that attacked her best friend and had to be put down).
"Searchers search. All the bitches here are searching for love. And when they don't find that, for enlightenment. They don't find anything. Not one of them," she declares in just one of many bizarre monologues. With her white hair and genderless clothes, GJ is not a welcome sight to the men of Lake Top, especially Matt. When Tui stops by, she tells the girl she has a time bomb inside of her. GJ is not one for small talk or coddling; she is, if anything, anti-mystical, instead directing the women to listen to their bodies, whether it's to learn how to give birth or how to die. We are not our bodies and death is "just a reshuffling of atoms," she says.
And then there's Matt's third son Johnno, Robin's teen sweetheart played by Thomas M. Wright. She finds him living in the woods in a tent or carrying on with a variety of women in town. He's tall and lanky, tattooed and tortured by his years in jail and as an addict. It's hard to not to root for these old flames to hook up again, even though Robin's mom (who is dying of cancer, for God's sake), begs her not to.
"Top of the Lake" could be a two-hour crime procedural, or a feature on the search for a modern female identity, or even how the sins of the parents are visited upon the children. Luckily, it's got plenty of time to stretch out and stay awhile so we can fully explore these fascinating, imperfect characters. It's romantic and incredibly sexy, it's terrifying and violent, and it's so raw it chafes. Cable TV has been well-established as a safe haven for actresses that are no longer interested in or perhaps have aged out of Hollywood's flimsy offerings, but "Top of the Lake" is probably the only top-tier TV series in recent memory that has such strong roots in female filmmaking.
"Top of the Lake" couldn't be more different stylistically than much of Campion's past work, from the weird and colorful "Sweetie" to period pieces like "The Portrait of a Lady" and the exquisite "Bright Star." You can see echoes of these characters across the ages, though. "Sweetie" star Geneviève Lemon appears here as Bunny, a rich woman whose husband left her for a much younger woman. In one striking scene, she goes to the town bar, drops cash on the counter, and tells the slack-jawed men drinking beer it's for "a f*ck" that will only last seven minutes and to meet her upstairs.
The time constraint is so she won't get romantically attached — orders from GJ. The female characters are wildly complicated and uninhibitedly sensual in all manners of the word; even innocent Tui becomes a hissing animal when cornered. While most of the men at Lake Top are dangerous — even Robin's mom's boyfriend gets a little punchy when he's drunk — Johnno is the outsider, and the most tender. Mullan might physically resemble Harvey Keitel in "The Piano," but it's Wright that channels Keitel's bare, blunt desire.
"Top of the Lake" is the flip side of recent Australian films like "Snowtown" and "Animal Kingdom." (All three share the same cinematographer, Adam Arkapaw.) "Snowtown" and "Animal Kingdom" are tightly wound thrillers that take place in towns like Lake Top, populated by men like Matt and his cronies. The crime family in "Animal Kingdom" is run by a woman (the marvelous Jacki Weaver), but we don't get to see too much of her inner life. Jane Campion has rescued them, given them their own lives, and then armed them to the teeth.
“Boom,” as GJ told Tui. “Boom.”