TOP OF THE LAKE

The mystery/procedural often offers up a strange kind of comfort. Its structure promises that chaos and confusion can be resolved into “order;” mysteries will be solved; we will find out who did it. We might not feel good at the end, but we’ll know.

I got through the final months of writing my book by plowing through the Henning Mankell novels: Wallander, c’est moi.

For me, the best mysteries convey a more thoroughgoing, almost existential unease. Those Scandinavian procedurals are in part so riveting because they often wrangle with broader topics: the sense that cultural change has wrought insurmountable anger. In Jo Nesbø’s dark novels, the protagonist’s investigations initiate such a deep personal unraveling that his job is killing him. That tension between chaos and order worked out in these stories is, for some reason, something I need to witness — even when chaos seems to be winning. These modern mysteries constitute a dark diagnosis of contemporary society’s ills.

But Jane Campion’s 7-hour series Top of the Lake (streaming on Netflix right now, and thank god for that) raises the stakes of the mystery to a new level. At the heart of this story is an almost mythic conflict between gods — a conflict over what it means when a world is made unstable with the appearance of a competing god. The fact that the gods at issue are patriarchal and maternal figures makes the stakes all the higher.  I can’t tell you how much I loved this show, and how unnerving it is.

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At one end of the spectrum is Matt Mitcham (Peter Mullan), the violent, unpredictable, and Scottish-brogued drug kingpin who lords over Laketop, New Zealand like the vengeful Old Testament God, with his tattooed sons Mark and Luke (above). His third son, Johnno (Thomas M. Wright), back from prison and disaffected from his father’s world, lives in a tent in the woods and sleeps with the local girls. This may be the best use of the four evangelists’ names in literary history.

The binoculars in Mark’s hand in that photo have spied a new arrival in the town: a group of women with a vaguely cultlike, inscrutable leader named GJ (Holly Hunter) which has purchased a spot on the lake called Paradise that Matt believes is rightly his. Living in empty metal boxes positioned in a circle, the middle-aged women swim naked in the lake, comb one another’s hair, and prowl for sex in town. In between they huddle around the emaciated GJ who, they believe, offers wisdom and the possibility of recovery from their bad relationships with men.

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What turns everyone’s attention away from the faceoff between old and new gods is the fact that Matt’s 12-yr-old mixed-race daughter Tui has walked chest-deep into the freezing lake on her way to school, and that when the school nurse got her out of those wet clothes, she found — almost incomprehensibly — that Tui is five months pregnant.

Which brings detective Robin Griffin (Elizabeth Moss, aka Peggy Olson from Mad Men) to the scene. Now a specialist in child abuse cases in Sydney, she’s back in town to help care for her dying mother. When she asks Tui to write down the name of the man who impregnated her, the nearly silent child writes, “No one.”

And then, after a visit to GJ and the middle-aged women in Paradise, Tui goes missing.

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Sure, Robin has her suspicions about likely perpetrators. The near-animalistic Matt, Mark, and Luke all live with Tui in their fortified compound and thus make ideal suspects. The little girl would have good reasons to deny (or repress) their rape of her. The town also has the usual kinds of blokey, oversexed, and/or disturbed men who inhabit barstools and dart games in low-level threatening ways.

But a funny thing happens on the way to investigating Tui’s rape and disappearance: with little to go on, the adults get reabsorbed in and distracted by their own dramas. Not least, Robin can hardly see this case without allowing her own bad memories to get in the way, to imagine bad guys who mirror figures in her own past.

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Robin’s obviously maternal feelings toward Tui stand in sharp relief against her own relationship to her mother. Purportedly in town to help in her cancer-striken mother, Robin spends less and less time there, distracted by someone else’s daughter and, gradually, by the feral, razor-thin Johnno who’s haunted by his own demons. Nor is she the only woman in town feeling ambivalent about the mother-daughter dynamic. The women at GJ’s commune abandon themselves to self-care, a self-indulgence made all the more striking by the appearance of a daughter. Most unsentimental of all is the gravelly-voiced haunt of Paradise, GJ herself — who increasingly expresses antipathy toward the “crazy bitches” who want her to mother them.

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You might think that a series that fundamentally probes relationships between men and women, parents and children, leaders and followers, rape and consensual sex might have straightforward feminist ends — particularly since it features a protagonist like Robin. But Campion’s goals are far more thoroughgoing than to condemn male violence, no matter how offensive. The women in the show are crippled and isolated by sexual shame and senses of maternal failure. They appear yoked to men in one way or another, even when — like GJ’s followers — they want to be rid of them. In sum, this is exactly what I want to see in female-oriented, female-directed filmmaking: complex stories and characters without simple morals.

This might sound bleak; I haven’t begun to talk about its wicked humor, the extent to which this show elaborates a human comedy as much as its nightmare. But let me assure you, when anchored to a neo-noir whodunit, and when acted so subtly by Moss, Hunter, Mullan, et al. — well, it turns back around into that chaos/order dynamic that we all find weirdly gratifying.

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Campion’s probing of primal myths with all these unpredictable, violent fathers and distant, guarded mothers serves to imagine human society in its darkest terms. They live at the top of the lake, but just as there might be bodies sunk down below, so do memories and histories and secrets swirl in those shadowy waters.

Let’s not forget, after all, how tangled are the Greek myths — the complex tales of parentage, gods raping mortals, bloody patricides, maternal distresses, outlaws and castaways and expatriates. You could say there’s nothing new under the sun, but let me assure you that you need to see how this unfolds.

536522_431891623561435_193783295_nNot to mention the scary possibility raised by Tui’s pregnancy and memories of other rapes long ago: could there be an even darker god lurking out in the woods, a true devil? As Robin and the police stutter around in their investigation, we get that feeling at the back of our necks that something is very wrong in Laketop.

Logging in at 7 hours, this 7-part series isn’t nearly enough. I gobbled it down — as I’m wont to due when a series is available in its entirety like this — but as with the very best series, I’m left with the sense that I missed half of the things that might give me even more appreciation for its depths. In short: I might have to watch it again. You should watch it too.

Tales of true crime seem to be the site where we try to assess whither our nation is tending, and it’s precisely the question, what is the new India? that drives Raj Kumar Gupta’s No One Killed Jessica. Manish, the son of a powerful member of India’s Legislative Assembly, attends a posh party with an entourage of male friends in Delhi and when he still wants a drink after last-call he finds himself in a faceoff with the woman working the bar, Jessica Lal, who refuses. The situation escalates. Manish pulls out a gun, points it at her face, and fires a warning shot into the ceiling while the rest of them stand frozen. Jessica still refuses to serve him, so he kills her with a point-blank shot to the head. Open and shut case, right? Not in the new Delhi, where money and power can buy your not-guilty verdict. (Many thanks to Mike for recommending this film to me, which is streaming on Netflix; see his excellent review here.) Is the new India so purely corrupt?

The first half of the film is really the tale of Jessica’s sister Sabrina (Vidya Balan) and her disappearing faith in the Indian justice system. Through her eyes we see the first inklings that Manish’s father is buying and threatening witnesses, such that even his son’s confession to the police cannot be upheld in court. Other witnesses know better than to come forward. Sabrina goes so far as to give Indian Rupee ₹20,000 to one of the witnesses, a poor man, to guarantee his testimony — only to realize too late that he’s in the pocket of Manish’s family. Most alarming is the disappearance of a key witness and one of the sisters’ best friends, Vikram (Neil Bhoopalam), who stood next to Jessica as she was shot. The film uses their family’s Christianity to symbolize her faith — Christians make up only about 2% of the Indian public — and Sabrina appears almost as a novitiate with her plain-Jane glasses, unflattering t-shirts, and severe ponytail. Gupta uses striking contrasts between Sabrina’s Christianity and Manish’s family’s too-eager public expressions of Hinduism (the country’s dominant religion) — appearances at religious festivals, etc. — to show us one more way that Manish and his family are corrupt. Perhaps it’s Sabrina’s wide-eyed faith that makes it all the more distressing when evidence disappears, eyewitnesses change their testimony, virtually all of the party’s 300 guests now claim to have gone home before the shooting. After six years in the painfully slow Indian court system, Manish is declared not guilty — and the Delhi newspapers declare in big headlines, NO ONE KILLED JESSICA.

The court’s shocking decision finally animates the film’s second heroine, Meera (Rani Mukherjee, doubtless the most beautiful woman I have ever seen), a famous TV journalist, who’d also expected in a guilty verdict. But whereas Sabrina’s loss of faith has religious overtones, Meera’s is wholly secular: she’s established as a wholly modern woman who’s highly ambitious and driven, sexually liberated, and free with an admirable range of expletives. (In fact, it was somewhat quaint to hear her call someone a motherfucking bastard in English but see the Netflix subtitles translate this as you idiot.) Now that she’s utterly pissed off, she seeks secular solutions. In a series of investigative stories, Meera proves the witnesses perjured themselves in court; with the help of the angry detective who saw his case collapse, she gets an audio copy of Manish’s confession and airs it on TV. Most of all she uses social media to move the public to action, urging frustrated citizens to text their legislators and jar the Delhi High Court into action to right this wrong.

Obviously there’s a lot to like here, not least that the film centers on two female protagonists, neither of whom adheres to conventional female roles. Meera is particularly appealing, even more so for her potty mouth and frenetic bossiness to everyone around her than her stunning beauty; she drives the story for much of the film. But I was struck most of all by the linguistic hybridism of the dialogue. Characters speak in a rapid-fire amalgam of Hindi and English that really does capture The New India in a way I haven’t seen in many Indian films before. Neither is it just a throwaway element of the film — language is a prominent subject of the film, not least for Jessica’s and Sabrina’s Westernized names, their (Western) Christian faith, and Meera’s Western brassy womanhood.

So am I such a cynical American that this film leaves me caught between disbelief and envy of the film’s optimism? Its determined drive toward a happy ending reminded me of Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (2008), which told such a gritty, realistic tale of the fates of poor Indian children in the first half of the film only to opt, in the second half, for a fairy tale of love, almost mystically endowed riches, and dancing. As much as No One Killed Jessica purports to offer a dark view of the new India, where the life of a young woman matters little in comparison with that of the pampered son of the political elite, the film ultimately reassures us of an innate goodness of the Indian people and a journalism dedicated to finding out the truth. This is no The Wire, which never allowed us to believe in truth and justice as core Americanisms.

Don’t get me wrong: I love the Crusading Journalist Exposes Corruption narrative (ah, All the President’s Men) but this film’s lack of commitment to the darkness of “the new India” theme hobbles it. In contrast, Aravind Adiga’s magnificent novel The White Tiger did such a better job signaling a different future for the nation. As much as I cried with happiness as the entire city of Delhi attends a candlelight vigil to protest the court’s decision, I couldn’t really believe that the High Court cared in the least how many texts they received from citizens about the case — this turn in the narrative seemed desperately eager to assert the essential goodness of the Indian people and to assure audiences that their opinions matter.

At the same time, even though Manish is eventually convicted, his father doesn’t suffer in the least for his role in perverting justice during the trial; the film asks us to be satisfied that the murderer is put away for life. Yet as I see it, corruption is the real story of the film as it was in Adiga’s novel — and one leaves the film knowing that corruption will continue. Even more than Crusading Journalist narratives, I’m riveted by Whither Are We Tending tales of crime — hence my love of The Wire and films like The Good Shepherd (2006), as well as Henning Mankell’s Wallander mysteries, which ask again and again what is happening in a new Sweden beset with new levels of racism due to unprecedented immigration. Ultimately I think No One Killed Jessica ends up torn between competing narratives — Whither Are We Tending, Crusading Journalist, and The Romance Of An Earnest And Engaged Public — such that one suspects Indian film doesn’t quite yet have the stomach for true cynicism. In the end, after seeing an awful lot of cynical Western films, I think I’m envious of your faith.