The Power of the Dog arrives in cinemas nationwide on 19th November and Netflix from 1st December.
It has been twelve years since Jane Campion sat in the director’s chair of a major feature film. That film was Bright Star (2009), an exploration of the relationship between John Keats and Fanny Brawne. During her cinematic gap, Campion turned to TV, writing and directing the outstanding TV drama, Top of the Lake (2013-2017). But it’s fair to say we have missed her presence on the big screen, and her return with The Power of the Dog is not only welcome but glorious in its depth, scale and beauty. Adapted from Thomas Savage’s 1968 novel of the same name, Campion dutifully explores the complex issues of masculinity and oppression found in Savage’s book while surrounding these with the air of a Hitchcockian inspired psychological thriller. The result is a riveting, sweeping and complex exploration of gender, sexuality, oppression and control on a Montana ranch.
The Burbank brothers, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons) run a successful cattle ranch in the hills of Montana. Their isolated yet sprawling home, sitting in a dust bowl surrounded by majestic mountains. The year is 1925, yet the brother’s existence feels stuck in 1900, the spit and sawdust nature of their work leaving little time for emotions, feelings or conversation. Here, both brothers’ lives are trapped in masculine stereotypes and behaviours that reject any sign of weakness or emotion.
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However, Phil and George are also very different despite their shared history; Phil is the archetypal cowboy, his hands as rough as his demeanour. While George sits at the business end of the family operation, his soft and sensitive nature only surfacing when separated from his brother’s overbearing influence. Meanwhile, not far from the ranch, the widowed Rose (Kirsten Dunst) runs a restaurant and boarding house with her teenage son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Peter loves science and nature while making paper flowers for the tables where their raucous guests eat fried chicken while guzzling booze.
Phil believes the young Peter to be gay, calling him ‘Miss Nancy’ while tormenting his love of nature and flowers with a barrage of homophobic slurs. However, unknown to Phil, George has already decided to ask for Rose’s hand in marriage, with Rose agreeing to move into the brother’s sprawling ranch. But her presence is neither desired nor welcomed by Phil, who unleashes a campaign of psychological torment. Here, Phil’s toxic masculine presence is contrasted and challenged by Rose and Peter, with every pastime becoming a battleground, even music. But, as Rose turns to drink and Peter becomes the focus of Phil’s attention, the boy hides his own psychological game.
THE POWER OF THE DOG: KIRSTEN DUNST as ROSE GORDON in THE POWER OF THE DOG. Cr. © 2021 Cross City Films Limited/Courtesy of Netflix
In adapting Savage’s book, Campion offers us her first male protagonist in the hands of Benedict Cumberbatch. And without a doubt, Cumberbatch’s performance lights up the screen as a grizzled, chain-smoking and hard-edged figure who writhes with secrets. Here we see a welcome change of role for Cumberbatch, resulting in a career-defining performance. There is an air of the hunter held within Cumberbatch’s portrayal, as his eyes sweep the land looking for any weakness before pouncing on his prey. Here Phil’s brutish behaviour hides the mind of a scholar, his intellect above and beyond that of his brother as he dominates those around him.
But it is when Cumberbatch’s sublime performance meets that of Kodi Smit-McPhee’s Peter that The Power of the Dog becomes a psychological drama that sores above and beyond many of its contemporaries. Here, Peter’s silence hides a shrewd understanding of the toxic behaviours at play. While at the same time, his outward weakness masks a calculating and sharp intellect that equals that of his sparring partner. Smit-McPhee’s Peter is an enigma, a danger and a saviour, the complexity of his character both irritating and captivating Phil. The power he wields held in his ability to unpick the secrets Phil keeps hidden from view. As Phil and Peter toy with each other, each scene sparkles with an unspoken acknowledgement of their shared intellectual prowess and hidden desires.
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Meanwhile, Dunst shines as a woman forced into an impossible choice following the death of her first husband. Here her first thought is the protection of her son and their shared security through marriage. However, despite her wish to make things work with George, her ability to navigate Phil’s oppression and bullying eats away at her until only a husk is left. While at the same time, Jesse Plemons beautifully reflects a man unable to protect himself and his new wife. His performance, one of unspoken fear as he attempts to navigate the minefield of psychological games his brother lays in his path.
Campion’s stunning direction revels in the vast, untamed landscape of Savage’s story, playing with the space and isolation it creates in the relationships of Rose, Peter, Phil and George. Here, the camera floats through the air on a gentle mountain breeze in the hands of cinematographer Ari Wegner, the New Zealand landscape indistinguishable from the Montana setting of the story. The vast open spaces, a cloak for the secrets that each person hides as they navigate the beautiful yet brutal expanse before them.
Campion skillfully and slowly builds the tension between Phil, George, Rose and Peter, layer upon layer, until it is almost unbearable for the audience. The tangled web of lies, hidden truths and power dovetailed with a stunning exploration of masculinity, jealousy and control. Meanwhile, Jonny Greenwood’s incredible score only adds to a sense of foreboding doom as the sprawling landscape combines with the human-created isolation of a home built on lies, fears and control. Here, The Power of the Dog reminds us all of the stunning complexity and beauty Campion brings to the silver screen. The performances at the film’s heart, as rich and compelling as the beautiful screenplay, cinematography and score. The result is a complex web of human interactions where the vast Montana landscape is a mere reflection of the internal wilderness of the human souls at its heart.