The Power of the Dog  Review : Jane Campion returns to shake up the Western genre in one of the best films of the year
Who would have expected Benedict Cumberbatch to star as a ragged cowboy, unkempt and menacingly rude? Let go of that impression, because as Phil Burbank, Cumberbatch sinks his teeth into the dirt to deliver his career-high performance. Set in 1920s Montana, he is the brutal force of nature in The Power of the Dog – Jane Campion’s return to film in a decade. Phil is a bully to his younger brother George (Jesse Plemons, tender and effective) whom he calls “fatso” and when he learns that George has married the widow Rose (Kristen Dunst), her “fat face” disgusts him further. Campion builds the initial scenes with a matter-of-fact form, yet there’s a sense of foreboding that hangs in the air – ever so slyly. You might not even notice when it starts to bleed.
A lovechild of Daniel Plainview and Jack Twist, Phil is otherwise emotionally attached to George, but no trace of that vulnerability can be tapped in his public persona – as vicious as he can ever be, burning the light out of anyone with any potential weakness. “I stink. And I like it,” he says. Rose’s entry, with her teenage son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) into their mansion threatens his order – and he leaves no stone unturned to harass and abuse her.
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The Piano fans will rejoice in a scene where Rose is ultimately unable to play the instrument- in front of the watchful eyes of George’s parents and the Governor. “You didn’t play?”- Phil breaks it off after he arrives. “You sure did practice a terrible lot!” Rose wilts. Dunst is able to convey an entire landscape of her backstory in that sequence alone. Phil opens up about his past – how a friend named Bronco, in whose loving memory he spends his private moments of tranquility, had saved his life on an unexpected night.
For Rose’s sensitive, wallflower of a son, Phil gives the name ‘Miss Nancy’. As the summer holidays arrive, Peter arrives to fill in the space for George who is out for work. Dissecting farm animals inside the house, Peter is able to see through her mother’s descent into alcoholism and depression. Peter then finds an unlikely paternal companion in Phil, who trains him to ride a horse. Smit-McPhee almost steals the film in a complex, opaque performance – his presence is crucial in navigating the reserved foothold of the narrative.
Adapted by the 1967 novel by Thomas Savage, Campion is aided expertly by Jonny Greenwood’s feverishly disquieting score that builds jazzes up the machismo with a hint of unease. Since much of the backstory from the book is done away with, Campion uses several closeups to unpack layers of meaning. Ari Wegner is masterful at capturing these moments – contrasting the vast and the intimate in true cinematic poetry. It is surprisingly deceptive how the New Zealand terrain is set in place for Montana, right from the hardened, sunkissed valleys to the smooth interiors in Grant Major’s production design. It all builds up to the compelling atmospheric design for Campion to tear off masculinity to its bare bones.
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The Power of the Dog is bolstered by the magnitude of unsaid, unexpressed words and actions. It pays off remarkably on the strength of its performances. Cumberbatch does not place a single foot wrong in a truly mesmerizing turn that cements his position as one of the finest actors of our generation. Watch out for the scene where he caresses a scarf, bathed in sunlight – so sensual it hurts. Dunst, in what seems like a return back to her Melancholia roots, is unforgettable as Rose, although so much of her is still wanting to be felt. She shares a truly magical sequence made sweeter since it stars her real-life husband Jesse Plemons – where he reveals how good it feels not to be alone. The deal here is relative newcomer Kodi Smit-Mcphee, who handles the bluntness of the third act with immense restraint, threading together the clues for a jaw-dropping climax.
With The Power of the Dog, Campion suggests that there is no one-way ride to get people – especially the dynamics between the bully and bullied, the terrifying and the terrified. Phil hates himself a bit too much to realize the power of love, his repressed passion wearing him down like a scar. Campion tears at it – unafraid like only the best directors can, to show the ways it can mirror the same things happening around us. Campion makes sure the blood lingers.