Slow-burning psychodrama about two warring brothers on a ranch in 1920s Montana is one of the director’s best
Jane Campion’s first feature film in more than 10 years is a western gothic psychodrama: mysterious, malicious, with a lethal ending that creeps up behind you like a thief. Campion devotees will enjoy the scenes in which a large piano is carried into an uncivilised wilderness; eight philistine cowboys are required to heave this into the ranch-owner’s parlour, the culture totem in the desert. And it is on this that the new lady of the house, played by Kirsten Dunst, attempts to master Strauss’s Radetzky March, while her jeeringly malign new brother-in-law (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) deliberately puts her off by playing it as well on his banjo – thus disconcertingly revealing that for all his rough ways he is actually rather more talented musically than she is. It’s the most menacing five-string banjo picking since Deliverance.
The setting is 1920s Montana, where two brothers run a profitable ranch: charismatic but boorish Phil Burbank (Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons), who affects a fancier style of clothing and millinery than sweaty Phil and aspires to the high social standing of his elderly parents who evidently staked them in the business. Phil, an instinctive bully, calls his brother “fatso”, encourages his men to mock him, and is obsessed with the fact that George is parasitically reliant on Phil’s tough competence, which he learned from a charismatic rancher called ‘Bronco’ Henry that he once idolised and who taught him the trade. But lonely, dysfunctional Phil is in fact emotionally reliant on his quiet, dignified brother and these grown men share a bedroom in their big house like kids.