Moody, without being oppressively dark or atmospheric, compelling and mysterious, Jane Campion's seven-part Sundance Channel series, "Top Of The Lake" – based on two episodes thus far – is an intriguing crime drama and mystery that's got this writer hooked. (The series screened in full at Sundance, but critics were also provided the first two episodes in advance of the festival).
Written by Campion and her "Sweetie" collaborator Gerard Lee, Elisabeth Moss ("Mad Men") stars as Robin Griffin, a tough, gutsy, and perhaps emotionally removed detective called to investigate a missing girl while she's come back home to visit her mother. Set in the remote mountains of New Zealand, "Top Of The Lake" follows the disappearance of a 12-year-old girl named Tui. Tui was mysteriously found wading in a lake up to her neck by one of her teachers, and when the police and Griffin investigate, they discover that the pre-teen is five months pregnant.
Rather oddly and conspicuously, her white-trash-y father Matt Mitcham (Peter Mullan), a seemingly above-the-law drug lord, doesn't seem to be overly concerned about the girl's pregnancy and he collides brusquely with Griffin when she tries to lead this investigation. A self-styled outsider and Libertarian-like loner who likes his arms and his dogs, Matt doesn't take kindly to investigators trying to get up in his business or step onto his gated premises.
Conflicts arise early on with two key factions in the show. The hillbilly-esque Mitcham family, led by the always-terrific Scottsman Mullan (playing a character with a dangerous air of unpredictable wafting around him) and a group of psychologically abused women squatting on a piece of land led by a tough, but an empathic spiritual leader named GJ (played by Campion's "The Piano" lead Holly Hunter). Featuring a shock of white hair and sucking on cigarettes as she stares into space, Hunter's GJ is ghostly, gruff and unnerving in the way she delivers creepy premonitions. Part seer, it's unclear what powers she truly possesses, but her declarative maxims tend to cut people to the core – especially Griffin when she alludes to the fact this investigation will find her at her lowest, "in the mud and crawling around."
David Wenham ("300," "The Lord Of The Rings") co-stars as a local detective seemingly in cahoots with Mitcham and perhaps tolerant of the freedom-minded always-armed townsfolk who don't take kindly to the law interfering in what they believe to be their own personal matters. When Tui goes missing, Matt holds a town hall in a bar, asking everyone for their help about her whereabouts, but also threatening every last man with something worse than death if they dare even withhold a shred of information. All of this is done right in front of Wenham's character's eyes, but the cop knows better than to aggravate the Mitcham clan and instead, coaxes him to simmer down and disperse.
Admittedly, it's difficult to discuss "Top Of The Lake" without at least addressing the vague similarities in set-up to AMC's once-cancelled, now-revived, "The Killing." Like AMC's show, Campion's dramatic murder mystery centers on a female protagonist and detective so personally drawn to and then invested in a crime involving a young girl, it consumes her and supersedes her pre-ordained plans. But the similarities mostly end there.
Whereas Mireille Enos' character was trying to leave Seattle before a murder she had to solve grounded her indefinitely, Moss' Griffin is only visiting New Zealand to see her cancer-recuperating mother. Living in Los Angeles with a fiance, she has a life outside this world. But born and raised there, Moss' character has an innate understanding of the people and the millieu. It makes for an interesting dynamic as Griffin is both part stranger, but not complete cultural fish out of water. It's also some of Moss' most intense and gripping work to date that will surely demonstrate she needs to be tapped for more lead drama roles.
This writer was only able to see two episodes of "Top Of The Lake," but he's already drawn into to something that feels like it will grow more haunting and powerful as it goes on – the promise of the entire story being completed in seven episodes, rather than drawn on for two agonizing seasons, makes it seem all the more worthwhile. "Top Of The Lake" will debut on Sundance Selects, Monday, March 18th at 9 p.m.