The Power of the Dog, 2021.
Directed by Jane Campion.
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons, Kirsten Dunst, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Thomasin McKenzie.
A rancher torments his brother’s new stepson as they work in the sweltering environment of the American West.
Jane Campion rewards those who are willing to wait for her. It has been more than a decade since her last feature film, Bright Star, and her new movie The Power of the Dog is the definition of unhurried storytelling. Campion knows that the real joy of a film like this is not in the destination but in the journey. Her contemplative Western is a powder keg of destructive masculinity, in which the ricocheting damage of macho performance catches anyone unfortunate enough to get too close.
Much of that machismo is embodied by Benedict Cumberbatch’s swaggering rancher Phil Burbank, who wears enormous trousers and speaks through the sludge of a treacle-thick accent. The near-parodic dialect sits deliberately awkwardly alongside Cumberbatch’s slender physique, helping to create a character who is evidently deeply uncomfortable in his own skin but determined not to let that show to anyone else. He over-compensates with bombast, brutality and spite. “I stink and I like it,” he says when challenged on his permanently dirty, bedraggled appearance.
The movie – adapted from a 1960s novel by Thomas Savage – follows the fortunes of the ranch Phil runs with his gentler, more taciturn brother George (Jesse Plemons). Early in the film, George marries Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and serves as stepfather for her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) – an aspiring medical student with a lisp and lack of conventional masculinity, which Phil promptly ridicules like the desperately inadequate posturer he is. He’s bruised by the arrival of adult responsibilities at he and his brother’s Montana bachelor pad, and it seems that every spark this provokes from his combustible personality manages to burn somebody in the vicinity.
It would be wrong to categorise The Power of the Dog as a revisionist Western. It’s steadfastly traditional in its tropes, its iconography and the jaw-dropping vistas captured with intimidating elegance by DP Ari Wegner. Campion’s native New Zealand stands in for 1920s Montana in beautiful fashion, with the character’s hemmed in by claustrophobia even amid the massive expanses of space they inhabit. In one sequence, the gorgeous strings of Jonny Greenwood’s evocative score accompany a sweeping camera shot of a mountainous vista, with the characters at the centre. They’re deeply free, but also ensnared by their environment.
Campion creates a world in which all of the characters are trapped. Dunst delivers a terrific performance as a woman whose humanity gradually slips away in the wake of the toxicity surrounding her, while Cumberbatch’s Phil is trapped by his own masculine performance. It’s the star at his most serpentine, eyes glinting with menace and fingers twanging aimlessly at a banjo which the character may or may not actually be able to play with any skill. In fact, the film very much leaves Phil’s competence as an open question. Is he good at what he does, or is he just the loudest and most assertive person in any given room? Certainly, he’s in stark contrast to the quiet, understated efficiency of Plemons – another shining supporting turn for him.
The film makes an interesting, sharp turn in its third act, swapping its slow-burn domestic drama for an intimate, quasi-familial bond between the previously antagonistic Phil and Peter. Neither man seems entirely comfortable in this ersatz union and it feels fraught. In a world characterised by the fact everybody is performing to some extent, Campion smartly teases out a mystery at the heart of this relationship. It’s possible either of them, or both of them, is simply playing a role.
The Power of the Dog is a slow-motion act of brutality. Campion calibrates the pacing and the poison perfectly, with testosterone spreading through the wilderness setting like a malignant, lethal sickness. And at the centre of it all sits Cumberbatch’s performance – a spitting evocation of the futile rage of the mediocre man. The action might be set a century ago, but men like Phil Burbank definitely still exist and continue to toxify the world they inhabit. With her incendiary drama – albeit one that crackles rather than explodes – Campion has constructed something furious, relevant and often capable of conveying pure beauty and repulsive ugliness at the same time.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.