After an extended absence from feature filmmaking Jane Campion makes a triumphant return to cinemas with the sweeping epic The Power of the Dog. Billed as a Western, the film runs more to an intense character study that has element of Greek Tragedy infused in its DNA.
The year is 1925 and the setting is rural Montana (although Campion filmed the piece in New Zealand). Widowed Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst) runs a restaurant and boarding house with her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Rose’s husband who was a doctor committed suicide some years earlier leaving her in a precarious position in the community. Peter is seemingly at odds with his surroundings; a quiet and somewhat effete young man who by nature seems unsuited to a rural environment.
When Rose’s life is interrupted by the appearance of the Burbank brothers, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons), her world becomes complicated with an equal suffusion of hatred and love. George woos the widow, and they marry, an act that frustrates Phil who views her as a gold digger, but worse, Rose’s major crimes seems to be that she is a woman who has descended on Phil’s homosocial rancher life; a woman that he can’t quite control who holds sway over his brother. Phil torments Rose at every opportunity which eventually drives her to start drinking heavily.
Rose sends Peter to medical school with the money she has access to as part of the Burbank family – to say they are rich is an understatement, they are old money. The ranch can barely make a real profit especially as Phil uses it as his playground, refusing to sell even the hides he takes from his cattle. When Peter returns from school for the summer, initially Phil turns his cruelty on the young man, encouraging his ranch hands to call him a sissy and bully him unrelentingly. Indeed Peter is lost on the ranch and his inexperience with the land makes him the focus of jeers. He also recognises that Phil’s behaviour towards Rose has caused her decline.
The question that drives The Power of the Dog is why is Phil so detestable? What is he so desperately trying to protect from feminine influence? The answer is wrapped up in his hero worship of his more than mentor, Bronco Henry. Phil was once a young man who studied Classics at Yale before encountering Bronco Henry; a man who in his mind taught him the essence of masculinity. Turning away from privileged high society (as evidenced in a scene where he deliberately refuses to participate in a dinner given at the ranch for the Governor and his wife, as well as the Burbanks senior), Phil relishes in his dirty cowboy persona. The shadow of Bronco Henry haunts Phil and takes him to a place of toxic behaviour that he believes in some manner is what manhood is. There is no room for gentleness or sensitivity in his being, that is until he recognises something of his past self in Peter and decides to repeat Bronco Henry’s lessons for the young man.
Adapted from Thomas Savages’ 1967 novel of the same name, Campion has made a timeless piece of cinema which explores the tragedy of repression. Benedict Cumberbatch inhabits the loathsome Phil with a sense of menace and cruelty that is truly one of his best performances to date. Kirsten Dunst as the increasingly fragile Rose is utterly convincing, but if there is one performance that stands above the rest it is Kodi Smit-McPhee’s surprisingly sensual turn as Peter. Campion knows how to direct actors into revealing their full range, whether that be by holding the camera on a small gesture or framing them in a majestic environment. Campion’s mastery of the micro and macro is bolstered by cinematographer Ari Wegner’s breathtaking work on the film. Wegner is fast becoming one of the most accomplished directors of photography working in the business and it is a testament to how much talent Australia has to offer.
Already garnering awards The Power of the Dog is a testament to Campion’s immense talent and her fearlessness as a storyteller. Campion has produced one the finest pieces of cinema of 2021 and one that rewards on multiple viewings. A Western The Power of the Dog may ostensibly be, but like the best of the genre it asks the audience to consider greater themes. Over time the film will be regarded as important in Campion’s filmography as her undeniable classic The Piano.
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