April 2nd, 2014

Island in the Sun

Top of the Lake? More Like Drop of the Cake!

When I—like the rest of the Internet—got hooked on True Detective, I—like the rest of the Internet—did note the very male focus and lack of strong female characters. Oh, for a show like True Detective with a female lead! The Internet informed me that the show I sought already existed in the Emmy-nominated miniseries Top of the Lake, which I had been vaguely interested in because of Elisabeth Moss. Now I was more than vaguely interested in it.

Top of the Lake begins with a pregnant 12-year-old half-Thai girl trying to drown herself in the lake, and it doesn't get any happier from there. Tui Mitcham soon disappears, the identity of the father of her child unknown, and the search begins. Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) is visiting her New Zealand hometown to spend time with her sick mother, and she takes charge of the investigation. That's right, this woman is a true detective! And every single man in this town is super skeevy. Tui's father, Matt Mitcham, is easily the most compelling, complex character in the show, a man with a strong sense of family who will do something despicable a few scenes before performing an act of kindness. Robin's boss, Al, keeps hitting on her even though she's engaged. Even Tui's half-brother, Johno, with whom Robin has a history, has this lingering sense of skeeve all over him even though he's halfway decent; it's like that fucking town has tainted him. Fuck the patriarchy, and so on.

As if to deliberately contrast with the misogyny entrenched in Laketop, an enigmatic woman named GJ (Holly Hunter) sets up a commune for women on the outskirts of town called Paradise. They live in trailers and walk around naked and talk about their feelings. Boy, do they ever walk around naked. One thing that's cool about Top of the Lake is that everyone looks like a regular person. They're not all movie-star hot, and with the exception of the actual sex scenes, the show parades around non-sexualized nude bodies like it's completely normal. The group of women are mildly developed, only one or two getting real characterization, the most memorable being, of course, GJ, who is also the show's biggest misstep. She never makes any goddamn sense, she speaks completely in non sequiturs, and Holly Hunter's performance is, frankly, bizarre. She should be a female Rust Cohle and instead she's...who even knows what she is.

Like True Detective, however, it has a unified voice—every episode is written by Jane Campion and Gerard Lee—and directorial vision—every episode is directed by Jane Campion and/or Garth Davis. The cinematography provides atmosphere. This isn't Middle Earth New Zealand, though; it's more about desolate mountains and sparkling lakes than lush forests with talking trees. I haven't seen any of Campion's films, but her storytelling style here is understated to an almost baffling degree. Huge moments are not highlighted, episodes often end on a downbeat with no hook, scenes play out with no apparent relevance. It's the kind of the show that will put a massive plot twist at the beginning of an episode instead of at the end of the previous episode. It's not the sort of storytelling I'm used to, and I found it hard to engage with for a while. Halfway through, however, I became much more invested, and the second half has more momentum, leading to a hell of a finale.

Top of the Lake ought to come with a bucketload of trigger warnings (the premise itself implies rape/child abuse), and critics more eloquent than I have talked about the show's portrayal of rape culture. There's much more to the show than its central mystery, but to be honest, I would be less positive about the show if the mystery resolution hadn't been satisfying (instead it makes little clues scattered throughout the series all fall into place, which is how I like it). Overall, I found the show to be a little too meandering and obtuse, but it was incredibly refreshing to watch a show with so many interesting, well-rounded female characters. Robin is not always sympathetic, but Elisabeth Moss shows us all the sides of her, however ugly they may be. The same goes for Peter Mullan, who plays Matt Mitcham. In conclusion, this show is pretty fucked-up.