Psychologically damaging and morally questioning, Jane Campion’s long-anticipated return is worthy of her name. Labyrinthine in nature, it may be impossible to walk away emotionally undamaged.
It’s been over a decade since Jane Campion last set foot in the world of cinema. During her time away, has she lost the golden touch that earned her the title of first female filmmaker to receive the Palme d’Or? Or has she aged like a fine wine, maturing in anticipation of the next great project worthy of her attention? The Power of the Dog is proof that Campion’s vision is immortal; outside of time. Instantly intriguing, the psychological drama blends itself within the shell of a cattle-herding Western world on the verge of extinction – the award-winning director prepared to take no hostages.
Brothers and business partners, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Burbank (Jessie Plemons) run their parents’ ranch together yet could not be further apart. On one hand, Phil is coarse and dirty, refusing to bathe in the house tub as he gruffly leads the ranch hands; the classic cowboy alpha dog sans the gunfighting. George is quiet and cultured, his pristinely posh clothing sticking out amidst a sea of Montana (mostly shot in New Zealand) plains and burly lackeys who choose to respect lassos and chaps over bowties and shoe polish. While Phil may encourage his men to bully his brother, openly calling him “fatso”, the pair share a bedroom, Phil drunk on his brother’s parasitic need for him.
There is a sensitive but unspoken bond between the two men, so when George suddenly marries Rose (Kirsten Dunst), a suicide widow who runs an inn, he is enraged. How dare this woman weasel her way into the family, especially considering the financial disparity between the newlyweds. Rose’s teenage son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is part of the package and is anything but normal, his odd awkwardness drawing the attention of his new uncle’s repressed wrath.
Based on Thomas Savage’s book of the same name, The Power of the Dog is a breath of fresh air. After reading the book, Campion couldn’t let it go. And it shows. Raw, personal, and humanly innocent, her dedication and (probable) fixation is evident in every aspect of the well-polished dramatic Western. Cumberbatch and Plemons are toxically intwined with each other yet there is a love that can only be found between such emotionally estranged brothers. Plemons and Dunst have a carefully crafted courtship from a time long gone – unsurprising considering their earlier on-screen marriage in Fargo’s second season.
Dunst and Smit-McPhee share many intimate moments, drawn together after the loss of their family’s patriarch. Smit-McPhee opens the film with a question, “For what kind of man would I be if I did not help my mother?” Yet as amazing as everyone is, it is the pairing of Cumberbatch and Smit-McPhee that turns good into great. Phil uses young Peter as an outlet for his rage, tunnel-visioning as his brother drifts further away into the arms of the apparent money-seeking mother.
Don’t judge a book by its cover. Every aspect of every relationship is defined by that simple mantra. This isn’t about a series of morally ambiguous characters that are eventually forced to break their self-imposed moral codes. Instead, Campion has achieved every filmmaker’s dream: a hand-picked cast of incredible actors ready to lose themselves in a role that not only strives to be real but demands it. While there are villainous moments, Campion captures the beauty of emotional confusion. I understood everyone’s plight and no matter how disgusting they may seem they are all driven by righteousness; by their belief that they are the hero.
As character-driven it may be, The Power of the Dog saves the best for last. Rather than choosing one over the other, Campion slow cooks a palpable tension that results in a not-so-obvious-but-not-too-surprising finale, closing off a journey defined by its melancholic hope and dignified fury. Hopefully, I won’t have to wait another 12 years to see Campion again. And even if I do, it will be worth the wait.
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