After twelve long years, New Zealand filmmaker Jane Campion has returned with the remarkable slow burn Western The Power of the Dog starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons. A cauldron of gently bubbling tension, the film unfurls with a fervid majesty that reminds us of what an incredible talent Campion is – it’s little wonder she won the Silver Lion for Best Direction at this year’s Venice Film Festival.
Set in Montana in the interwar period, The Power of the Dog follows two brothers, Phil and George Burbank portrayed by Cumberbatch and Plemons respectively, who own a ranch. Phil is a belligerent yet charismatic rancher who venerates the seemingly unwavering ruggedness and manliness that his idol, the mythic figure of Bronco Henry, embodied and imparted to him. His brother George on the other hand is subdued and tenderhearted, wearing a suit where Phil wears rancher’s attire, including cowboy spurs that loudly herald his arrival to a scene, and yearning for the companionship his brother denies (Phil frequently refers to his brother as fatso). He finds such companionship in Dunst’s widow Mary, the proprietress of a largely unfrequented hotel, whom he quickly marries and invites to live with him on the ranch.
Phil is vehemently opposed to this union and makes no secret of his feelings, firmly asserting that he isn’t Mary’s brother and generally making her life miserable. Which inevitably takes its toll; she wastes no time before hitting the bottle. However, most of Phil’s disdain is reserved for Mary’s son Peter, an aspiring surgeon portrayed delicately by Kodi Smit-McPhee. Calling him a “sissy boy” and taking every opportunity to mock and belittle him, Peter represents everything Phil despises. The masculinity of Western men thus comes to the fore as the film’s central theme. However, there is far more to Phil than meets the eye, and the film gradually reveals a sensitivity in him that belies his outwardly macho persona. Campion masterfully examines, and deconstructs, the inherent masculinity of the Western genre and the way in which the harsh landscapes, and the “manly” skills often necessary to survive them, temper men into something they are not. Equally, Campion underlines how the barrenness of the American frontier leaves its inhabitants often feeling adrift and lonely, pining for any form of human connection.
Though the credit for this film’s brilliance does not lie solely on Campion’s shoulders. The performances are across the board excellent, including an entertaining cameo from Thomasin McKenzie as a housemaid, but it’s unsurprisingly Cumberbatch that will take most of the plaudits this film will undoubtedly receive. He’s deliciously unsympathetic throughout, but the subtle tenderness of his performance provides the unassuming depth upon which the film’s success lies. Equally sublime is Jonny Greenwood’s score, which indelibly captures the rising dread that subsumes the film. Ari Wegner’s cinematography also expertly encapsulates the remote isolation of the ranch as well the sublime beauty of the Montana (though it was shot in New Zealand’s comparably gorgeous Otago region) wilderness. Crafted from top to bottom with an astounding poise, Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog is a masterful revisionist Western thriller that skewers the genre’s unbending and aggressive masculinity.
This review was written by Oli Gamble, member of the thatfilmbloguk team, American and Canadian Studies graduate, and co-host of the thatfilmbloguk podcast.