“He’s just a man, Peter. Only another man.” – Rose (Kirsten Dunst)
Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons star as Phil and George Burbank; brothers who work as reputable cattle ranchers. George is a simple, upstanding and honest man while Phil is boastful, malevolent and manly. While Phil is happy with their routine of continuing the business, George is looking to settle down and start a family.
When George falls in love with entrepreneur Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and takes in his younger, effeminate brother Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Phil takes it upon himself to passive-aggressively take them out of commission. But things take a sharp turn when Peter becomes more and more aware of Phil’s way and decides to turn the tables.
The Power of the Dog is the first feature film Jane Campion has directed in twelve years, since John Keats biopic/romance Bright Star in 2009. For her latest film, she has undertaken the task of adapting the novel of the same name by Thomas Savage, and she has not lost a step working in the wide cinematic landscape.
It is no surprise that Campion manages to display immaculate beauty in her films. In the case of showcasing the American West, Campion and cinematographer Ari Wegner (In Fabric, True History of the Kelly Gang and Zola) manage to lend a soulful touch to the settings without sacrificing the gravity of it. The strong winds, the barren wastelands and the sparkling waters of the lakes; they all reflect that underneath the enchantment lies something dangerously gritty.
That is also reflective of the three-dimensional characters. Phil has the swagger that men would love to have. However, underneath it all lies the manifestation of toxic male bravado; a man whose territoriality is threatened and therefore will fight back those who do so. Peter, on the other hand, is coming of age as he discovers his sexual identity as he goes through adolescence. Rose may have her own personal success of running her own business and has lived the life of a happy marriage once before. But the lived-in exhaustion of undergoing life during the frontier uproots her a sense of cynicism toward the world, especially toward the presence of men.
Alongside the striking cinematography and, the majestic score by Jonny Greenwood does a remarkable job in subtly guiding the shifts in tone as the tension escalates from contemplation, passive aggression and utter malice.
But with the presence of Phil in his life, Peter undergoes a transformation that will make a difference in ways that he never knew he would be capable of. Through themes of gender dynamics, power plays and homoerotic overtones, Campion manages to show the compelling intricacies of the male gender in a classic story that feels entertainingly modern.
The performances from the cast are all fantastic. Cumberbatch has the swagger and hatred down pat in the role of Phil; getting the small gestures and intonations in his accent spot on as he slithers into the burgeoning family unit. But much like the filmmaking, Cumberbatch’s performance provides depth that could almost engender empathy. Every line of acidic dialogue, intricate physical movement that Cumberbatch enacts is so effortless, it never feels like a cartoon but a full-bodied human being.
Dunst manages to bring a sense of heavy world-weariness to the role of Rose as she undergoes a gradual psychological breakdown through Phil’s deception; leading her to alcoholism. Smit-McPhee manages to be believably conflicted as he navigates his true self as she seeks a sore of guidance from the senior figures around him. In the lesser role of the four leads, Plemons plays the noble, yet oblivious role of George with capable nuance. The supporting performances from character actors like Frances Conroy, Keith Carradine and Thomasin McKenzie all add credibility.
Overall, The Power of the Dog marks a triumphant return to cinema for Jane Campion, proving to be a psychologically intense and emotionally beautiful experience about male machismo in the American West.
FIVE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
The Power of the Dog screened at this year’s Sydney Film Festival. It is now showing in cinemas, courtesy of Transmission.