Starring an ensemble cast that includes Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons, Kirsten Dunst and Kodi Smit-McPhee, The Power of the Dog is the latest film by Palme d’Or winner Jane Campion. Based on the eponymous book by Thomas Savage, it tells the story of a tense relationship between a rancher and his new sister-in-law.
Set in 1920s Montana, brothers Phil (Cumberbatch) and George (Plemons) Burbank lead a simple life on their ranch. While Phil is domineering and brusque, George has a quieter demeanour and is not as emotionally invested in being a rancher as his brother. He is quickly drawn to Rose (Dunst), a sensitive widow and innkeeper, and a tentative romance blossoms between them. However, Phil makes fun of Rose’s son Peter (Smit-McPhee) due to his ‘unmanly’ nature, leading to animosity when Rose and George marry and she moves into the Burbank home.
Although The Power of the Dog has the aesthetics of being a Western, it presents itself as a psychological drama that explores the narrative’s underlying toxic masculinity. Broken up into chapters, the majority of the drama is instigated by Phil, who presents himself as the ‘man of the house’ with a commanding nature and natural leadership style inspired by his late mentor ‘Bronco’ Henry. With such an overwhelming presence in a male-dominated environment, it is no wonder George’s relationship with Rose infuriates Phil, especially as he believes that their marriage is purely motivated by George’s wealth. Fuelled by resentment and quiet jealousy, Phil’s subtle yet constant mockery towards Rose adds to her growing unhappiness amid her isolated surroundings.
Despite its somewhat misogynistic nature, there is a sinister side to Campion’s screenplay that betrays the secrets of its characters. It is implied that Phil’s feelings towards ‘Bronco’ Henry are more than platonic, causing him to hide his feelings by striking up a surprising friendship with Peter. His actions come across as another strike against Rose, who slowly descends further into alcoholism while Peter’s sensitive side sways into the dark side, which sees him confront his demons regarding his late father and a somewhat coldness towards wild rabbits. Combined with George’s surprising ignorance towards his wife’s issues and an inability to defend her from his brother, the ranch becomes a pressure cooker of emotions that not only derails certain characters into a path of unrepentance but the audiences towards a startling climax.
Boasting confidence and intricacy, The Power of the Dog‘s outstanding performances spectacularly raise the calibre of the film. Cumberbatch is at a career-best, showing impressive range as cold-hearted Phil, but the film belongs to Dunst and Smit-McPhee, who respectively exude fragility and a quiet awareness to drive the film’s second and third acts. With New Zealand replacing Montana, Ari Wegner’s beautiful cinematography captures the ranch’s lonely and barren landscapes with Campion artistically delivers a fraught drama using intimate scenes and lingering dialogue. Along with the startling performances from its core cast, The Power of the Dog marks a triumphant return to form for Campion and establishes itself as one of the main contenders in the upcoming awards season.
The Power of the Dog is now available on Netflix.
Director: Jane Campion
Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons, Kirsten Dunst, Kodi Smit-McPhee
Runtime: 126 minutes
Country: New Zealand