The Power of the Dog

Jane Campion’s claustrophobic, slow-burn western dials up the queer subtext of Thomas Savage’s source novel.

Jane Campion’s claustrophobic, slow-burning western makes up the eerie subtext of Thomas Savage’s source novel.

The year is 1925. Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) owns a ranch in Montana with his brother George (Jesse Plemons). Nearby, recently widowed Rose (Kirsten Dunst) tries to survive with her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) by running a small restaurant. A visit from the Burbanks later and Rose has a new husband in George and a new nemesis in Phil. “Hello, Brother Phil,” Rose said as she entered her new home, the dark, well-appointed Burbank ranch. “I’m not your brother, you’re a cheap schemer,” he says, as his face crumples.

Dunst goes to great emotional strain as a character who struggles to speak, showing ragged and devastated emotions as Phil finds new ways to torture her. It’s a man’s world and a man’s movie – yet the question of its well-being gives the story heart and motivates the key events. These powers, as they are, do not serve her. The wild landscapes of Central Otago in New Zealand (which replaces Montana) are vast, beautiful and lonely. She’s trapped. Jonny Greenwood’s heavy grind-of-a-score adds to this atmosphere of claustrophobia.

The Power Of The Dog - Light Home News

Campion slowly pulls out the individual elements of his account, with the same methodical precision that Peter – a medical student – uses to dissect a rabbit. Vivid images shoot off the screen, like Peter’s lanky figure spinning a hoop around his hips in the twilight. He’s a delicate boy who knows how to make roses out of paper. Phil uses one of those paper roses to light a cigarette, then throws its charred remains into a jug of water, where it hisses. The next shot shows Rose in the next room framed by a glass door, reacting to this destruction with pain.

The film is fueled by the slow-burning conundrum of who Phil and Peter are. They initially present themselves as two conflicting male archetypes: the macho man versus the decadent boy, but each is made up of layers. Their removal constantly alters the chemistry of their relationship, creating a power struggle that makes the film’s third act utterly gripping and hard to predict. The eerie subtext of Savage’s book is composed, infusing the tension between the two with a sensuality that adds another factor to the mystery of how this relationship is going to play out.

The Power Of The Dog - Light Home News

Smit-McPhee acts Cumberbatch off the screen. The latter’s espionage instincts and overcooked accent (“Well, isn’t that purdy”) no match for the convincing subtlety of his co-star. Indeed, Smit-McPhee is more effective at showing the inner life than Cumberbatch who, for all his reputation, is strangely opaque. The off-putting elements of his performance become less awkward as the film progresses, but this reviewer has spent some time watching thinking about redesign options (Cosmo Jarvis? Tom Hardy?)

The Power of the Dog is brilliant and ambitious enough to absorb this imperfection. Campion is a master at interweaving characters and plot, so a reveal of one pushes the other. In this first film focusing on male psychology after a career of studying female characters, she makes observations about masculinity and power that defy classification. She’s opened these topics wide and we can only stand still and try to catch the shards as it rains.

Reference of the Article-post – lwlies