Director: Jane Campion
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Frances Conroy, Keith Carradine, Thomasin McKenzie, Genevieve Lemon
Words – Rhiannon Topham.
Jane Campion is a master of atmospheric melodrama. Her latest, The Power of the Dog, is an incredibly textural wild west based on Thomas Savage’s novel of the same name. It follows prosperous cattle ranch owners Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Burbank (Jesse Plemons) in 1925 Montana, a hyper-masculine environment where anything remotely effeminate is performatively derided by Phil while George looks the other way.
The equipoise between the brothers, who at first sleep in single beds beside each other in the same room, is disrupted when they meet Rose (Kirsten Dunst), a widowed restaurant/hotel owner who George marries after a short courtship. The brothers are polar opposites in almost every way; Phil is the quintessentially ornery and reticent cowboy, striding across the plains in his stirrups, bathing only in a nearby creek when nobody’s looking, whereas George is clinically clean, well-presented and timid in nature. Theirs is a combative kind of harmony, ripe for sociological analysis. So, when Rose and her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who represents just about everything Phil despises, move into the Burbank family home, the paradigm shift is colossal for all involved. Phil took pleasure in upbraiding George’s anti-rancher disposition but appreciated the status quo of their collaboration; Peter’s unabashed interest in the intricacies of flora and fauna seems to physically unsettle him.
Unless you’re familiar with the source material, it’s extremely difficult to predict how the simmering tension and capriciousness will culminate. Campion doesn’t give anything away about the origins of Phil’s hostility, the Burbank family secrets bubbling just beneath the surface or when, how and to whom the manipulation coming from all directions is going to aim its final deadly shot. We’re always expecting a situation to erupt into a hideous brawl, or for something or someone to make an ominous entrance over the mountains Phil spends so much time looking longingly towards. The performances are subtle and finely-tuned, grounded by moments which temporarily displace you from the escalating agitation on the Burbank ranch.
Campion suspends us between apprehension, expectation and an almost celestial sense of some invisible force pushing, pulling and wringing the nascent unhappy family. There are elegant reflections on chosen and given family, the roles we play in our everyday lives and the intricate face-saving involved in seemingly meaningless interactions–all among a harsh but beautiful frontier with a main character energy of its own. We hear a lot about ‘slow-burners’, but don’t let the pace of The Power of the Dog put you off. Everything suddenly clicks in the final scene, and it is so worth the wait.