Campion's masterfully crafted and acted historical drama explores both the myth of the American dream and toxic masculinity and elevates the work of a Western author who deserves posthumous praise. After taking a feature film directing break since 2009's Bright Star, the Oscar-winning director (the first woman director to receive the Palme d'Or) returns with a literary tale that exposes hard truths about loneliness, isolation, and repression. With her gifted cast and crew, Campion immerses audiences in the American West of the 1920s and provides a fascinating character study of four individuals as solitary and unknowable as the Big Sky landscape. Cumberbatch initially seems miscast as a macho cowboy, but as the movie progresses, Phil's layers make it clear why the actor was chosen for the role. Cumberbatch ultimately gives one the best performances of his career as Phil, a man so chilling and brutally savage that scenes with him take on a tense sense of psychological horror. Dunst is fabulous as grieving and self-medicating Rose, and her on- and off-screen partner, Plemons, provides a caring foil to his brother's ruthlessness.
As easy as it would be to focus on Cumberbatch, kudos are also owed to 25-year-old Aussie actor Smit-McPhee, who's excellent as even-smarter-than-he-seems Peter. The strength of the acting ensemble is bolstered by the outstanding technical crew. Australian cinematographer Ari Wegner captures the gorgeous mountain landscape (even though the film was shot in New Zealand, not Montana), and composer Jonny Greenwood's score ratchets up the story's tension and emotional suspense. The costumes are also worth mentioning, with Kirsty Cameron paying lots of detail to class (noticeable as Rose goes from working widow to well-heeled wife) and textiles in a way that makes the large fur coats, shiny belt buckles, well-worn denim, and beaded Indigenous gloves part of the story. If Campion's adaptation loosely reminds viewers of the themes of Brokeback Mountain, it should be noted that Brokeback's author, Annie Proulx, was influenced by Thomas Savage's work. The movie's writing and pacing, like the scenery, are slow and languorous, but the build-up makes the final act all the more riveting.