There are times during the six hours of “Top of the Lake" when you can convince yourself that you're watching a mystery story about a young girl who goes missing. But that sensation never lasts.
Soon enough a scene will come along — a drug dealer flagellating himself at his mother's grave, say, or a woman walking into a roughneck bar and offering to have sex with the first man brave enough to volunteer — to remind you that you're actually watching an increasingly loony and wearying parable about swinish men and damaged women. In other words, a Jane Campion production.
Campion, the New Zealand writer and director still best known for her 1993 film “The Piano," wrote (with Gerard Lee) and directed (with Garth Davis) “Top of the Lake," a seven-part mini-series that has its American television debut tonight on the Sundance Channel. It was filmed in the mountains of southern New Zealand, and the vertiginous landscape provides some visual drama amid the arbitrary shocks and glum psychologizing of the story. The tourist board can't be too happy, though — Campion turns rural New Zealand into a steaming backwater that makes the American South of “Deliverance" look enlightened.
In the show's already celebrated opening scenes, a 12-year-old girl, Tui (Jacqueline Joe), is spotted walking into a frigid highland lake; after she's rescued, she's found to be pregnant. Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss of “Mad Men"), a detective with experience in child-abuse cases, is brought in to talk to Tui, who refuses to identify her baby's father. Soon after, Tui disappears.
That's a fine beginning for a mystery, and complications are introduced in a way that, early on, can make you think you'll be seeing a knotty thriller like “Forbrydelsen" or its American remake, “The Killing," which “Top of the Lake" often superficially resembles. Tui's father, Matt Mitcham (Peter Mullan, giving the show's one interesting performance) is the patriarch of a local clan of thugs and drug dealers and has a creepy fixation on his much younger daughter. One of his sons, Johnno (Thomas Wright), used to be Robin's boyfriend and was present at a violent situation in their school days that haunts her. The boss of the ineffectual local police (David Wenham) is a cryptic mix of smooth operator and good-old-boy chauvinist.
But Campion isn't really interested in using these characters to tell any kind of straightforward story. Most of the elaborately introduced plot lines fizzle out (or simply vanish), and the final surprise is the worst kind of twist ending, arrived at arbitrarily and seemingly presented for its shock value. Even Tui's disappearance is a Macguffin, less a story element than a metaphor for the kind of armed resistance to male hegemony that constitutes the central idea of Campion's body of work.
And in that context, Campion and Lee's meandering, careless handling of the mystery — beginning with the unexplained notion that Robin, who is on a visit home from her job as a detective in Australia, can be called in to work a case in New Zealand — is beside the point. “Top of the Lake" is the latest expression of the Campion worldview, in which there are two kinds of men — brutes and weaklings, though they're uniformly degenerate — and one kind of woman, the victim, who can come in a variety of guises: the flower child, the shaman, the neurotic, the armed avenger. The story progresses like a tournament: a series of tests that men inevitably fail.
The signs that “Top of the Lake" will go in this direction begin with the introduction of a lakeside women's camp run by a poker-faced guru played by Holly Hunter, star of “The Piano." (With her long gray mane, Hunter is a ringer for recent photos of Campion.) The camp and its residents initially seem to be caught up in the sundry murders and financial dealings that serve as window dressing for the story, but they're really there, like everything else, as part of Campion's tapestry of the gender wars. They also provide several opportunities for filming groups of women bathing naked in the great outdoors.
Like the rest of the show, those scenes are beautifully framed and adeptly staged; Campion's talent for image-making is unquestionable, though her style is largely static, and when action is called for she tends to pull the camera back to a great distance. Her visual flair and sympathy for her themes, no matter how dopily and solemnly they're presented, probably explain why so many viewers and critics are ready to accord her work masterpiece status (which was affirmed when “Top of the Lake" was shown at the Sundance Film Festival). But in this case, at least, the empress, like a lot of her characters, has no clothes.