Director: Jane Campion
Writers: Jane Campion
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Kenneth Radley, Kirsten Dunst
Cinematographer: Ari Wegner
Editor: Peter Sciberras
Streaming on: Netflix
A longtime chronicler of desire and the various forms of its articulation, filmmaker Jane Campion brings her astute handling of simmering sexual tensions to The Power Of The Dog, a quietly blistering study of masculinity and repression set in 1920s Montana. While the film, her first in over a decade, continues the thematic preoccupations of her earlier works, it also represents a natural evolution in the way she investigates them, taking familiar ideas and presenting them from new, but reliably perceptive angles.
Like The Piano (1993) and In The Cut (2003), The Power of The Dog reflects a masculine world in which female interlopers are sidelined, their art devalued and their pain the source of amusement, but this time, Campion swivels her camera away from the women and focusses on their aggressors in a bid to understand what makes them tick. If In The Cut was her way of taking the erotic thriller, a genre traditionally shot through the male gaze, and reframing it as a feminine exploration of sexuality, The Power Of The Dog continues to have fun with genre subversions. The Netflix film is a Western in which the only terse standoff involves its opponents trading musical notes instead of gunfire and the central cowboy duel is one that sees him wrestle with his conflicting emotions.
Based on Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel of the same name, the film follows brothers Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Burbank (Jesse Plemons), joint owners of a sprawling Montana cattle ranch. Phil is a man as sharp as his spurs, menace radiating from his grime-covered pores — he revels in the smell of his sweat — and his Southern drawl the auditory equivalent of a sneer. George, on the other hand, is more gentlemanly and refined, softer than Phil in both demeanor and appearance and long resigned to his brother’s cruel jibes. That they sleep in twin beds despite the vastness of their inherited estate points to a codependency that’s gradually revealed to be more on Phil’s end than George’s. At one point, Phil toasts to their brotherhood, describing George and he as Romulus and Remus. But if only he’d paid closer attention to the tale, he’d know what the audience does — it’s a tragedy and not a triumph.
Tensions in the Burbank household are inflamed when George falls in love with, and secretly marries Rose (Kirsten Dunst), a widowed waitress with a young son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) whose effeminate looks and sensitive nature seem designed to provoke the worst of Phil’s hypermasculine impulses. The initial portions of the film make superb use of the spaces these characters inhabit. There are shots of vast outback, with its sprawling plains and looming mountains, but Campion doesn’t linger on the natural beauty. Instead, she frames the characters against this expanse, making them seem minuscule and out of their depth. The high-ceilinged living room of the Burbank mansion, overcrowded with furniture, seems to overwhelm any new entrant, as it eventually does Rose, who wilts in her new surroundings and under Phil’s cruelties. The full scope of the animosity between Phil and Rose, and the ensuing psychological strain borne by both, are effectively conveyed through little sounds — the discordant note of a banjo dropped on a bed, the creak of a door, the scrape of a chair across a wooden floor.
Lest audiences judge the rancher too harshly, however, Campion frequently frames him through windows, emphasizing the rigid constructs of his identity and heightening the sense of him being trapped within them. She surrounds him with phallic imagery, lingering on his hands as they rhythmically move up and down a length of rope, and, more explicitly, when he holds a wooden post between his legs and drives it into the earth repeatedly. The abundance of masculine symbols highlight his projected identity, but also hint at his stifled desires. And as the story trots towards its heartbreaking end, it becomes easier to recognise how his words only contradict his unspoken emotions. The eroticism that springs forth later in the story is a surprising turn, but there’s a sense that no one is more caught unaware than Phil, a man who defaults to denial and repression. Cumberbatch, who’s made a career of playing refined intellectuals, is fiercely compelling in a role that demands a rough-hewn physicality. While real-life partners Dunst and Plemons exude a real tenderness onscreen together, they’re ultimately minor players in a saga dominated by Phil’s outsized presence.
Deceptively stitched together and devastating in its stealth, The Power Of The Dog is an effortlessly assured film that borrows none of its protagonist’s posturing to get its point across. It’s one of Campion’s best.