Jane Campion’s “Top of the Lake” is an overwhelming experience. Maybe not if it’s taken in one-hour chunks, which is how it aired on the Sundance Channel, but if you watch it on Netflix Instant in one fell swoop, you’re liable to emerge on the other side with your head still in the foggy clouds of New Zealand. I can only imagine how anyone seeing it at Sundance earlier this year felt after sitting through all 353 minutes with nothing to interrupt the immersion save for the occasional bathroom break.
The simplest way to describe the plot sounds like the makings of a really long “Law and Order: SVU” episode: A 12-year-old named Tui tries to drown herself in a lake, and it’s only after she’s rescued that the adults around her notice she’s five months pregnant. The nearly silent pre-teen rides off into the wilderness on a horse with nothing but some supplies, a shotgun, and her snappy Chihuahua at her side. And that’s when Campion and Gerard Lee’s story goes sprawling in every direction, much like the mountains and bush surrounding Tui’s small hometown of Lake Top.
Detective Robin Griffin, played by “Mad Men” star Elisabeth Moss, is visiting her dying mother when the head of the Queenstown Police Station, Al Parker, calls on her to help with the investigation. Right away, Robin’s thrust back into the uber-masculine environment she grew up in, a murky stew of hard drugs and shotguns presided over by Tui’s grizzled dad Matt. In a poor town bristling with barely sublimated sexual rage, Matt is the scariest of them all — an impressive feat, but given that Peter Mullen has convincingly played psychos in approximately all of his prior roles, it’s not hard to believe.