Ok, I lu-huve Jane Campion. I was hoping this would deliver the promise her name brings, and it is so sumptuous, the cinematography, the score.
I was a little hesitant about seeing Benedict Cumberbatch as a cowboy. I had dreads about a twangy accent and this pale, cat-faced thespian trying to embody a rugged steerhand. At some point you become too famous, it gets in the way. Instead of folk saying, “Benedict Cumberbatch was great in this!”, people just spend the movie going, “Look, it’s Benedict Cumberbatch.” Also it doesn’t help that my eye wanders over him rakingly, hoping I might leave scratches down his back with just my gaze. He’s fully nude in this, and we do at one point catch just a smidge of dong. So my hesitancy is as much based on my inability to suppress my dick as anything else.
The good news is, the Cumbersnatch does carry it at the end of the day. Eventually your eye stops catching on him, and he settles into being Phil, this absolute bastard rancher. His body is lean and muscular, his face dirty, gritty with beard, his expression cruel and mocking, closed off and swiping out. He’s just mean. He seems mean from his first breath in the morning to his last utterance at night. A full glass of mean with an endless supply to refill.
He strides into this story, cursing and sneering at his brother. He makes fun of a lisping boy, the son of his old, departed friend, Bronco Henry, and reduces the boy’s mother to tears. He has a nasty, ruinous quality to the small kindnesses and beauties of life. He is contemptuous of anything more feminine or comforting than his hypermasculine way of life. This extends even to his brother, a portly, be-suited, social climber who is ultimately harmless.
His brother commits the cardinal sin of loneliness, and need for love, and marries the widow. Phil is outraged, and feels fierce betrayal, and barely contained vengeance. His brother, already soft-bodied, a dandy and fool, now brings in this whimpering wretch, to live in *his* house, come between him and *his* brother. From almost the first moment, you can see his mouth pull down in a cruel twist, and then something funny occurs to him, and you can see some mean thought has entered his mind about what to do about it.
He casts his shadow over every corner of the house, so she never feels welcome, never feels safe. She’ll think she’s alone, then hear a sharp whistle. He taunts her attempts to live up to the higher status her marriage has given her. He makes her nervous and self-conscious. It reminds me of The October Game by Ray Bradbury, where the narrator follows his wife from room to room, just because he knows his presence makes her uncomfortable, and if he does it long enough, he will reduce her to tears.
About halfway through the film, the son discovers a stash Phil has hidden of Bronco Henry’s things. From them, there was clearly a sexual and romantic relationship between Phil and Bronco. Phil no doubt blames his widow for his suicide, his son too, the whole 2.5 kids dynamic that kept Bronco from him, and ultimately killed him. Not only has she taken his lover from him, but his brother now too. And his ceaseless cruelty becomes understandable.
It is not immediately apparent if the boy has understood the significance of what he’s seen, or if Phil, who catches him, realises just how much he’s seen, but from then on Phil makes an effort to mend their relationship, and treat him as a nephew. He teaches him how to ride, and starts making a rawhide rope for him.
I can’t explain to you, how this story, which is quiet, and slow, and sparse in actual ‘events’ just burns with unbearable tension. The whole movie you are waiting for the other shoe to drop. Because Phil is so clearly a man of repressed passions and barely contained violence. So it’s almost more dreadful when he befriends the boy, because you are just waiting for where the horror will come. Will he teach him how to ride, so he can take him out country and break his neck, make it look like a fall from the horse? Will he try to turn him against his mother, so she is completely isolated? Maybe get him to commit her as her secret alcoholism gets worse? You just know, that despite the lack of outright confrontation, something in this situation is going to have to give.
All that said, it is somewhat a regressive story. After all, it’s about how a nasty and jealous homo gets in the way of the hetero family living happily ever after.
But for me, it was just beautiful.
And definitely one you are gonna wanna watch if you are into leather. From the sensual saddle polishing to the erotic cigarette sharing. Thumbs up.