2016 Film Essays

Of Love and Other Demons: ‘Top of the Lake’ (Jane Campion & Garth Davis, 2013)


Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake, which has been compared to David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, toys with the surreal. Comparable to Twin Peaks in how its surrealism exposes truth through the unfamiliar, violence becomes the central destabilizing factor within the narrative, while sex — for better and for worse — becomes the unifying one. Far more rooted in realism than either Lynch or the classical surrealists, Campion and her co-director Garth Davis nonetheless utilize elements of the artistic movement to expose the hidden truths of a broken community. 

As Detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) returns to her hometown, Laketop, to care for her ailing mother, she becomes involved in the investigation of the disappearance of a 12-year-old girl. Over five months pregnant at the beginning of the narrative, Tui Mitcham (Jacqueline Joe) comes from a traumatic home life and seems unwilling or unable to confess who raped her. While suspicion begins to fall almost immediately on her father, Matt (Peter Mullan), his role as the town’s informal patriarch means that few are willing to speak against him.

The intimacy of violence in Top of the Lake renders it affecting and alien. Violence in this film, as with most of Campion’s world, leaches onto people and poisons families and communities. Unlike most films which drum up fear of the violence “out there,” here it lies within. Born through trauma experienced and passed down through generations, it courses through the veins and arteries of the Laketop community, stitched into their identity and way of life.

At the heart of this parasitic trauma exists Matt Mitchum, brought to life with oil and poetry by Peter Mullan. We see through Campion’s gaze the flawed and idealized vision that male archetypes benefit from on the screen as she exposes the toxicity that lies therein: the dream of the male hero — the John Waynes and Steve McQueens — laid bare as fantasy. With Matt Mitchum, Campion captures the inadequacy of men’s vision of what women want; the fantasy of the outlaw, the cowboy and the patriarch exposed as a mistruth.


Campion and Davis expertly do not render Mitchum as a monster but unveil him as sexually alluring, charismatic and insecure. His brief love affair with one of the women of Paradise strips him of his power and destabilizes his masculinity. Mullan’s performance channels incredible sensitivity in this moment, letting the audience in to feel his sadness for his lost daughter, but not letting viewers deep enough to truly understand why. Images of his self-flagellation and brutal retaliation showcase his dangerous instability, and only Sam Peckinpah has ever come close to capturing the dangers and insecurities of masculinity as well as Campion on screen. Both position the force of masculinity as incredibly alluring but inherently toxic.

Trauma has a way of building up quick relationships based on shared experiences and violence by way of fear (of either enemy or death). The traumatized women in Paradise feel empty and absent, speaking about monkeys and ex-husbands, looping on facts and feelings while they fail to connect. Positioned as a collective representation of the fool, they are alienated, forcefully cut off from intimacy and life. The moment that any of them break through and form a real connection, it becomes impossible to laugh at them anymore.


Like In the Cut (Campion’s flawed but nonetheless masterful murder mystery), sex and violence become intertwined. The sexualized violence is laid bare as not being about desire but something born out of a desire for power and a thirst for violence; the unifying power of trauma also a powerful aphrodisiac, and Robin’s desire for new boyfriend Johnno seems hinged on the vulnerability of reliving the traumas of her youth and being faced with the ruthless patriarchy of the local police force. Campion leaves the threads hanging as viewers sense that, when removed from Laketop, maybe their passion for each other will fizzle, because the need for survival will dissipate, and they will have nothing left but pain.

Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.