Returning after over a decade to direct a feature film, Jane Campion pitches novelist Thomas Savage’s The Power of the Dog into a lush canvas that stuns your senses as much as it evokes an eerie wariness that hovers over the movie like an invisible blanket, rustling and fluttering, never quite settling down.
Based in 1925 Montana (the stunning locales of New Zealand stand in its stead) and following the dusty journey of brothers Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Burbank (Jesse Plemons), the movie opens with the wealthy ranch-owners stopping at Beech during a cattle ride, where they sup at an inn owned by Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst). Their cowhands, all of who seem to have adjusted their loyalty compass toward the rugged, unclean, and brusque Phil, join their boss in verbally tasering Rose’s effeminate son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as he attends their table, wine dropper cloth draped elegantly on his forearm. As Phil burns into Peter and his intricately crafted paper flowers, George sits quietly at the other end of the same table, not saying a word. In this scene, the director sets the table and her characters for the movie, the two brothers at its far ends—opposite poles in behavior, attire, and outlook—while the mother and son duo circle the gang.
It’s not long after that George and Rose marry, much to Phil’s consternation and fury convinced that she’s got their fortune in focus. He’s not privy to an intimate, mountain-top scene between the couple soon after their wedding. George, overwhelmed by the sheer gratefulness of having someone like Rose in his life, melts, tears flowing as would melting snowcaps off beholden peaks in warmer weather. It’s also a quiet pointer to the couples’ need for companionship—and security— that you never see them kiss passionately. It’s a mellow, symbiotic give and take, as does seem to be the sex. On the couple’s first night in the Burbank home—the brothers’ rooms now separated by a door—there’s some quiet talk and then some moans. All the while, you’re listening in, as is Phil. If in The Piano, the director used a crack in the wall to mount voyeuristic arousal and anger, here the keyhole is used as a symbol to cleave the brothers’ lives with a quiet twist of the lock. Phil and we are unwilling voyeurs here, the porous walls a gleeful conductor of leaking sound waves, inputting mundane eros into our side.
None of this does anything but fan Phil’s resentment towards Rose. The director hands Phil the piano as a weapon to ruthlessly—and efficiently—castrate her confidence and persona as effectively as he does bulls on the ranch. There, he uses a knife. Here, his nifty banjo-playing skills do the job. In both cases, he doesn’t use gloves. In what is a first directional turn in the story, he bombs her shaky piano performance in front of the governor (Keith Carradine) and the senior Burbanks. Pushed to shame, Rose finds solace—and liquid courage—in the, well, liquid. When Peter returns from his medical school, he finds her in a sputtering state of anxious stupor.
With Phil relentlessly training his snarls at Peter and his mother, it dawns upon you that the boy’s made up of some indeterminate determination. Unlike during their first meeting at the inn, he doesn’t sniffle or snivel. Exposure to college and the dorm life seems to have done him good: he’s made a new friend too. In another turning point, Peter walks across a hooting and derisive line of cowhands, them mocking his feminine stride, him seemingly insulated inside his own quiet confidence now, and he walks back the same way. At this point, there’s a shift in relationships, and the balance teeters toward an unknown equilibrium that simmers on sparks of erotic energy. (There’s another critical directional shift later in the barn, the director employing a 180-degree dolly shot.)
Director Jane Campion, who also wrote the screenplay, turns the very concept of a macho western on its head, adding layers of sexual identities and pasts that lead to preferences contrary to the idea of poster cowboys. But there are other layers in a state of sludgy motion too. Of how repressing one’s orientation brews toxicity, boiling and fuming, as the human pores turn into a chimney of spewing violence and hate. If it doesn’t throw it all out, it remains inside, slowly corroding the vessel bearing the burden. Expounding on the movie’s title—from Psalm 22 of the Book of Psalms—would in itself be a spoiler, but there’s yet another layer of the underdogs and the alpha dog forces that relentlessly undermine the former. There’s also a reason only Peter and Phil can figure out the formation on the distant mountains. Like reacts to like.
The Power of the Dog is a haunting piece of work, and with cinematographer Ari Wegner, Campion creates magic with lighting, visual frames, and sun rays, all tantalizing, as if the last unfinished verse of a hypnotic poem. Plus, the cast is powerful in every quiet stride they take. Benedict Cumberbatch is as ferocious as a hungry lone wolf, and his act drips all the toxic masculinity that paints such behavior as manly. But even the lone wolf needs someone. Kirsten Dunst lends a crumbling sense of helplessness to her role, drowning in a whirlpool of escape, away from the wolf. Jesse Plemons (Dunst’s partner in real life) is terrific; every word he speaks and the spaces between them are a measure of his character’s kindly and stolid persona, while Kodi Smit-McPhee as Peter is a highlight. The actor beguiles and hypnotizes with a gangly, awkward act—as if not knowing that the limbs attached are his. But those eyes, firmly affixed on his diffident demeanor, hide more than his character reveals. Plus, composer Jonny Greenwood creates an unforgettable chamber of moods, his notes dissonant at times, mournful and aching elsewhere, cascading trickles of feelings in others, including in the last scene. Those notes are the power of the movie that stalk you from within long after.
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The Power of the Dog
Director Jane Campion Time 2h 6min
Writers Jane Campion, Thomas Savage (based on the novel by)
Stars Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, Alexander Skarsgård, André Holland, Bill Campbell