The Power of the Dog arrives in cinemas nationwide on 19th November and on Netflix on 1st December.
It has been twelve years since Jane Campion last sat in the director’s chair of a major feature film with Bright Star (2009), exploring the relationship between John Keats and Fanny Brawne. During this time, Campion has focused on TV, but, oh my, have we missed her presence on the big screen. The Power of the Dog is a welcome and glorious return to our cinema screens. Adapted from Thomas Savage’s 1968 novel of the same name, Campion dutifully explores complex issues of masculinity and oppression while paying homage to Hitchcock. 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. 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. In the dustbowl they call home, the brothers are very different in their personality and nature. Phil could be described as the archetypal cowboy, his hands as rough as his demeanour while George is the businessman, his soft and sensitive side sitting in the shadow of his brother’s overbearing influence.
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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, nature and creativity; his demeanour is a world away from Phil and George when they visit for food and shelter. Phil believes that the young Peter is gay, calling him ‘Miss Nancy’ while tormenting his love of nature and flowers with a barrage of homophobic slurs. But unknown to Phil, George has asked for Rose’s hand in marriage, and, therefore, it’s not long before Rose and her son will move into the family home.
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
Cumberbatch lights up the screen as the grizzled, chain-smoking, hard-edged rancher who writhes with secrets. 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. Yet behind Phil’s brutish behaviour hides the mind of a scholar, his intellect above and beyond that of his brother. However, when Cumberbatch’s Phil meets Kodi Smit-McPhee’s Peter, The Power of the Dog becomes an outstanding psychological thriller. Peter’s silence hides a deep understanding of Phil’s toxic behaviours, his outward weakness a mask for his calculating and sharp intellect. Smit-McPhee’s Peter is an enigma to Phil, who irritates and captivates in equal measure. As Phil and Peter toy with each other, Campion’s film sparkles, their shared intellectual prowess and hidden desires bubbling and writhing under the surface.
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Campion’s stunning film is deeply intimate yet vast in its vision. She joyously plays with the space and isolation surrounding each relationship while allowing the camera to float through the Mountain air in the hands of cinematographer Ari Wegner. Skillfully and slowly building the tension between Phil, George, Rose and Peter until it is almost unbearable for the audience. Here the tangled web of lies and power dovetail with a stunning exploration of jealousy and control as Jonny Greenwood’s haunting score surrounds us. The Power of the Dog reminds us of the stunning complexity and beauty Campion brings to the silver screen through a complex web of human behaviours as vast as the Montana mountains at the film’s heart.
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