Jane Campion returns to the big screen with The Power Of The Dog, a bittersweet and complex tale of a Montana rancher whose hidden desires clash with convention. Campion’s masterful storytelling flows through every fibre of the narrative. The plot slowly unfolds and takes it’s time to allow the pieces to fall into place, but when they do the result is stunning. Coupled with Ari Wegner, a rising star of cinematography, who captures the beautifully barren landscape of 1920s Montana. Boring into the lives of four complicated individuals in a variably hostile environment, The Power of the Dog investigates societal convention, loneliness, violence and masculinity.
Written by Tresca Mallon
Benedict Cumberbatch, as Campion’s first male protagonist, took a while to settle into the role of Phil Burbank. At first I was unsure if the typically clean cut actor could convincingly play the dirt-coated rancher. However, delving into the character’s background as a privileged, Yale graduate, it stands to reason that the mean,rough-and-ready persona is merely a well-polished facade. Cumberbatch subtly portrays the character’s inner struggle in direct conflict with the hyper-masculine environment in which he finds himself and has ironically reproduced. Jesse Plemons gives a much quieter but nuanced performance as Phil’s beloved brother George. The brothers are polar opposites and yet they share a similar desire for companionship. George is able to find this through marriage which, due to the criminalisation of homosexual relationships in Montana, is not a possibility for Phil. Until George marries Rose (Kirsten Dunst) Phil is able to fool himself that George can fulfil this need. He is consumed with jealousy and torments Rose. His disdain stems not from class difference or his fear of losing influence over his brother, but his fear of being left alone.
It remains to be seen whether this will be Kirsten Dunst’s long overdue Oscar nominated role. However, in the first half of the film she shines as the strong-willed inn keeper, driven to despair by Phil’s malicious vendetta. The depth of emotion in the scenes with the piano are some of the most affecting in the film. Similarly to Campions seminal film The Piano, the instrument becomes almost an antagonistic character in it’s own right. It comes to symbolise Rose’s discomfort with her new societal position and her character as at odds with her surroundings. However, despite Dunst’s best efforts her Rose’s arc becomes stagnant and somewhat sidelined in the third act as she becomes more a footnote in the narrative than a major player.
There is a brilliantly crafted homerotic tension between the complicated protagonist and his self-imposed nemesis’ son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Despite a sizable age difference, Campion skillfully creates a balanced power dynamic which is no easy feat. Smit-McPhee plays a seemingly sensitive young man, who struggles against his harsh environment. However, at the midpoint we start to glimpse a darker side to the character and Smit-McPhee really comes into his own. This edge to Peter’s character creates an uneasy dynamic between himself and the other characters. The obscurity of his motivations until the final act fuels an uncomfortable yet gripping sense of unknowing which doesn’t cease until the final moments.
Despite an at times overpowering soundtrack, The Power of the Dog is a quiet film which manages to build an unbearable tension from the simplest of moments. The sweeping shots of breathtaking landscape and deep dives into the desert create a stifling sense of isolation. Campion interrogates masculinity and the ropes in which it binds each of the characters. Focusing on just five characters allows each to become a separate study. While we never get truly close to them, the characters slowly reveal themselves allowing for a chilling and all encompassing viewing experience.