Written and directed by Jane Campion
The cruel frontier life clashes with domesticity in The Power of the Dog, pitting wild men against the meek blooms of civility. An unfair fight on the surface, but I guess we all know who will inherit the earth.
It’s the early 20th century. Two brothers, Phil and George, run a ranch in the cold wastes of Montana. Looking at them, their blood connection seems a cruel cosmic trick: George, played by Jesse Plemons, is a soft-spoken (and soft-bodied) man with a budding mustache who wears the suit befitting of his wealth, whereas Phil is a wiry spot of dirt brought to vivid life by Benedict Cumberbatch, who spends his days outside amongst the men, taming animals with the unquestioned power of brutes. A cruel bully who stays in the wild and his kind-hearted brother who stays in. A housecat and a (hellish) prairie dog.
While Phil seems in love with the cowboy life, George wants more than sleeping in a single bed next to his brother, and he has a soft spot for a woman in the nearest town. Played by Kirsten Dunst, she’s a modest woman managing an inn and raising a teenage son, and they’re soon married. With her arrival, along with her son, the mood sours at the ranch, or in particular, in Phil’s mind, who bullies both with relentless icy contempt borne of something he hides away from the audience.
So the lines are drawn up: In the stables, Phil reigns with asshole-energy, devoted to getting himself dirty in whichever way he can and dragging his mean-spirited candor around with him. Inside, George and Rose try for domestic bliss, with Rose quickly wilting from the spit of Phil’s acid tongue. Civility versus cynicism, nature versus nature. In the middle, a young man, who soon falls under the influence of an unlikely mentor.
The Power of the Dog is like a great short story, twice pulling out the rug from underneath you, flooring you with a commanding last turn of the screw to complete a wholly realized story about how there’s more to people than meets the eye. The ending on its own is worth watching the preceding two hours for, but even then, it’s a magnetic run-up.
With her latest, Jane Campion’s calls back to her former glory of The Piano. Similarly a story of wild things nursing a hidden sensibility, The Power of the Dog is a story of wild things, be it animals, nature or man, infused with an unspoken sensitivity that feels too vulnerable to survive in this harsh world. But survives it does and prospers in Campion’s hands, and if you don’t love the idea of a rough cowboy caressing his own naked torso with a handkerchief, or the sudden unexpected comedy of seeing a maypole-bodied teenager hula hoop to let out his frustrations, then I’m afraid you don’t have an appreciation for the finer things in cinema.
In a physical world like Campion’s Montana (New Zealand’s rugged splendor stands in), it’s easy to think the above-mentioned sensibilities are just of the flesh, but in truth, it’s also in how people reveal themselves in how they see the world, setting them apart and connecting to the like-minded. Equals are not found in muscle, but in feelings. There’s a world of common ground to be covered with a single look between two people who see each other clearly suddenly, and for all its rough men, ungracious words and cruelty, The Power of the Dog has these transcendent moments in equal measure. It’s the juxtaposition of textures that makes this film a pleasure to watch, as uncanny as it is compelling.
Cumberbatch’s loud and affected performance is difficult to look away from, shedding his former persona (in my mind) of soft spoken gentility – Phil is a right prick, and it’s something to see Cumberbatch sneer with such venom, laugh with so little warmth and gloat with the impenetrable arrogance of an abuser.
Opposite him, Plemons may appear a little too timid, and a prolonged absence in the film’s middle does him no favors. But in the film’s initial third, Plemons shows enough backbone to prove why he belongs out here, and enough tenderness and humanity to show us how civilization was rooted where it seemed unlikely to ever grow. It’s something in the way this man sets his brows, equally taken aback and unfazed, like some fluid that reacts to a collision only to settle back into its former shape as if nothing happened.
Alongside him, Dunst continues to build out this middle act of her career as a person who wanted really nothing other than care for others and is mercilessly looked down upon because of it. The real human stakes of this film.
Finally, Kodi Smit-McPhee’s work as Peter, the boy amidst the adults, might be his breakthrough. Unassuming until he reveals a deep well inside of him, the character of Peter is much like Smit-McPhee’s reed of a body: invisible in profile, but it’ll cut right through you when it strikes.
The Power of the Dog is Campion at the height of her powers, shedding some of the poetry of her earlier work to instead write in hard-hitting sparse prose, with every hit more profound due to the silence around it. It’s vibrant, thrilling work, emphatically delivered and with a mad final flourish to boot.