The Power of the Dog
In her first film in more than a decade, acclaimed filmmaker Jane Campion directs a mesmerising musing on strength, desire and isolation, as aided by a career-best performance by Benedict Cumberbatch.
UPDATE, December 1, 2021: The Power of the Dog is screening in select cinemas, and also streams via Netflix from Wednesday, December 1.
Don't call it a comeback: Jane Campion's films have been absent from cinemas for 12 years but, due to miniseries Top of the Lake, she hasn't been biding her time in that gap. And don't call it simply returning to familiar territory, even if the New Zealand director's new movie features an ivory-tinkling woman caught between cruel and sensitive men, as her Cannes Palme d'Or-winner The Piano did three decades ago. Campion isn't rallying after a dip, just as she isn't repeating herself. She's never helmed anything less than stellar, and she's immensely capable of unearthing rich new pastures in well-ploughed terrain. With The Power of the Dog, Campion is at the height of her skills trotting into her latest mesmerising musing on strength, desire and isolation — this time via a venomous western that's as perilously bewitching as its mountainous backdrop.
That setting is Montana, circa 1925. Campion's homeland stands in for America nearly a century ago, making a magnificent sight — with cinematographer Ari Wegner (Zola, True History of the Kelly Gang) perceptively spying danger in its craggy peaks and dusty plains even before the film introduces Rose and Peter Gordon (On Becoming a God in Central Florida's Kirsten Dunst and 2067's Kodi Smit-McPhee). When the widowed innkeeper and her teenage son serve rancher brothers Phil and George Burbank (The Courier's Benedict Cumberbatch and Antlers' Jesse Plemons) during a cattle-run stop, the encounter seesaws from callousness to kindness, a dynamic that continues after Rose marries George and decamps to the Burbank mansion against that stunning backdrop. Brutal to the lanky, lisping Peter from the outset, Phil responds to the nuptials with malice. He isn't fond of change, and won't accommodate anything that fails his bristling definition of masculinity and power, either.
In a career-best, awards-worthy, downright phenomenal turn by Cumberbatch, Phil is all hawkish menace and bravado; he viciously calls his brother 'Fatso', his initial taunting of Peter over paper flowers and effete mannerisms is all the more ferocious for its dinner-table audience, and he's effusive in his admiration for Bronco Henry, the man's man who taught him everything he knows. Indeed, Phil's hyper-masculine air, complete with threatening and mocking banjo-plucking, soon drives Rose to drink. He'd rather still be bunking in with George, as they have for the quarter-century they've run their inherited ranch. He'd rather scare everyone away by failing to bathe, unless he's stealing off to a secret water hole — and by mixing his Yale classics degree into his sneering, too. The key to Cumberbatch's commanding performance isn't softening Phil or playing up his charisma, but conveying the battle of repression and self-resentment raging within; the cattleman has long tanned his own public persona, but he's as complex as rawhide.
Adapting Thomas Savage's 1967 novel of the same name, Campion gives Phil's chomping misery ample company: in the sauced Rose, in the intimidating attitude that rolls around the ranch like a stubborn tumbleweed, and in Peter when he returns from his medical studies for the summer. The Power of the Dog lets this unhappy stew fester, adding grit to its brew with each passing scene and deepening its rich character studies in the process. The film's only misstep is pushing George aside, although the fact that his passivity — his main trait alongside tenderness — earns him less attention is an incisive touch. Rose becomes a supporting player as Phil and Peter's initially antagonistic relationship finds deeper dimensions but, in Dunst's hands, this is still an intense portrait of a woman heartbreakingly accustomed to being at others' whims. As a raw-boned young man who proves exacting and steely inside, Smit-McPhee isn't just similarly exceptional — he's revelatory.
So much of The Power of the Dog hinges upon loaded moments where little appears to occur beyond interpersonal manoeuvring — where observing Phil, Rose and Peter's fraught dance is the most gripping thing in the film's frames. And while that back-and-forth is compulsively captivating, especially thanks to the feature's tremendous performances, the movie springs an unforgettable kicker that makes everything preceding its final scenes blister anew. Campion hasn't helmed a mystery, but she's masterful at lacing her feature with careful clues. She's meticulous with her unfurling, and with the herd of emotions it unleashes. From the get-go, she's also painstaking in her handling of tone and tension — so much so that there's never a second of The Power of the Dog that isn't on edge, particularly when Jonny Greenwood's ominous score grinds, twangs and bounces, the Radiohead guitarist setting the mood as firmly as he did with There Will Be Blood 14 years back.
Westerns frequently canter through conflict, finding quarrels baked into the rough countryside. They also gallop into overt clashes about who's permitted to roam over, control and truly exist upon all that land. The Power of the Dog is a domestic melodrama as well as a western, but it's still a tale of dominance, yearning and survival in a remote place — and of people fighting for space, be it by oozing the macho toxicity expected of powerful white men, seeking safety in a sturdy marriage or extracting one's own path through the muck. Handsomely lensed and hauntingly patient, Campion's film is both classic and subversive, the two extremes that recent examples of the genre tend to oscillate between. Like Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain and Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff — both soaring modern westerns — it's aware of its past and also firmly of the moment, too.
Viewers should expect nothing less of Campion, the first woman to win the Palme d'Or back in 1993 with The Piano — only this year did Julia Ducournau become the second thanks to Titane — and also the second-ever female Best Director Oscar nominee. She's already won Venice Film Festival's equivalent of the latter for her efforts here, and deserves at least another Academy Award nomination as well. Campion approaches filmmaking like she's stitching together a delicate tapestry layered with feeling, texture and insight, and the results are exquisite and immaculate. In this case, she's braided The Power of the Dog as intricately and determinedly as Phil plaits the rawhide lasso he becomes obsessed with — and ensures that it also cuts as sharply and devastatingly as the bull castrations he undertakes with his bare hands.
Top image: Kirsty Griffin/Netflix.