The return of Jane Campion with her first feature film in over a decade stays true to her thematic principles while reinventing her lens as well as a genre. The Power of the Dog is an unexpected subversion of the Western, absorbed in Campion’s longstanding exploration of power, desire, and expression by repression.
Based on a 1967 novel by Thomas Savage of the same name, The Power of the Dog is a complex and selective adaptation of the real-life experiences of the author. In the 1920s Montana, brothers Phil and George Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons) are wealthy ranch owners. Phil is the rough and rugged, foul-smelling alpha of the two. He plays the banjo and castrates bulls with his bare hands. George is softer and kinder; he seeks a life of companionship, outside of the crude expanses of the ranch.
Campion stirs a masterful deconstruction of the Western, almost instantly, with the two different worlds and philosophies that the Burbank brothers represent. More so in the casting itself. Benedict Cumberbatch is phenomenal in a role that is a complete subversion of his type.
His Phil is an embodiment of an isolated life in the wild west. He is a cowboy and finds meaning and comfort in rearing cattle and the lonely open mountains. He speaks highly of a mentor-like cowboy figure, which only has deeper implications as the story progresses. George, on the other hand, yearns for family. He is all too accustomed to his brother’s ridicule; he reluctantly sips on his shot as the others chug. He hosts extravagant dinners and invites the governor. The disparity between the brothers is outstandingly portrayed as the pull and push between unhinged, harsh wilderness and sensitive, modern civility, while also hinting at its co-dependence.
The story takes shape when George marries Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), a mild-mannered innkeeper, without Phil’s knowledge. Real-life partners Plemons and Dunst are endearing together in the first few scenes.
Rose is a widow with a frail, effeminate teenage son, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee. His ways invoke a hyper-masculine and derisory disdain from Phil. In a masculine world of his, the entry of a female intruder in the form of his brother's wife threatens his order of living. What starts as a slow-moving character study, changes into a malevolently unnerving thriller. Phil, in a series of intimidation and victimisation of Rose, wants to assert his dominance. The slow-simmering fear in Rose is almost haunting; it pushes her to alcoholism and ill health.
In a brilliant scene, Rose is practising the piano to play in front of the governor and his wife. Phil, who has slowly retired to bed without her knowing, pulls out his banjo, furiously plucking it. With a sinister creek at his door, he watches her petrified, trying to play. This shockingly spine-tingling scene represents the establishment of power dynamic entirely by music; it's stunning. Interestingly, it also disguises itself as a play on Campion’s most celebrated work, The Piano, which won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1993. Campion was also the first woman to have received the prestigious accolade.
The Power of the Dog is a skilful rumination on masculinity, sexuality, and relationships. The three men in the film characterise very contrasting impressions of masculinity.
McPhee’s Peter seems like a fragile boy, but is revealed to have strange wickedness and mysterious intentions. Phil, previously scornful of Peter’s ways, grows an unanticipated friendship with him. Phil's tough and unbending walls of manliness become somewhat defenceless with Peter. Secrets of the past come up that he has long buried.
With the wheel in Campion’s hands, Phil is not a comic book villain with no shades of grey. He has insecurities and vulnerabilities reflected through every muscle of Cumberbatch’s. With a raw stillness, he embodies a tornado of sentiments; no words spoken. His piercing, lingering gaze is enough to beseech affright. His eyes are what we see the bereft stretches of the ranch through.
The atmospheric quality of the film would be unachievable without cinematographer Ari Wegner’s towering eagle-eye aerial shots and Campion's meticulousness. The parched breadths of Montana permeate the screen, and you can almost feel the dust of the ranch on your skin. The climatic tone set by Jonny Greenwood’s music is the best I have seen in a while and underlines the subtext of the film in a hauntingly beautiful way. It changes sharply with the escalations between the characters and slowly sneaks into the slow, tense rhythm of the film. One is able to appreciate it despite the exceptional performances by the actors.
In a twisted ending, altered from the source material, we're left briefly puzzled. Less by the happenings, more by not knowing how to feel. It's enigmatic, like its biblical title, that you gradually uncover. We're compelled to think if Campion left us enough clues as a forewarning to the climax, going back to the very first words we hear, before the first frame is revealed. The Power of the Dog is made with careful precision and demands the same from the viewers. You will miss the details in a blink.
As the Oscar prediction season has kicked in, The Power of the Dog stands strong in multiple categories. To the uninitiated, the film should also serve as an accessible introduction to Campion's filmography and style. The psychological, suspenseful drama—whether or not present on the Oscar list—travels beyond into the rejuvenation and subversion of a genre.
Our Rating: 4 Quints out of 5