A film that has such a necessity in its scripting, and one that commands your undivided attention throughout (and lingers with you long after), Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog is undoubtedly one of the year’s best films.
Adapted from Thomas Savage’s novel, Campion’s unnerving western centres itself around Montana ranchers Phil and George Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons). Brothers not of the same cloth, Phil’s insulting volatility is at odds with George’s calm demeanour, their dynamic is of particular note when they meet Rose (Kirsten Dunst), a widowed inn owner, whose son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), earns the ire of Phil due to his feminine mannerisms and delicate sensitivity.
Offering comfort to her visible distress, George and Rose soon marry, which further enrages Phil who believes she is merely only marrying into their family for their wealth. Clearly aware that her intelligent audience will stay with the story as it intricately unwinds, Campion not only gains our trust as a storyteller, but rewards us along the way. A lesser filmmaker may succumb to the urge to overtly explain the detailings on screen, Campion however understands the power of loosening and tightening the screws on her narrative, allowing each relationship and revelation to blossom in their own organic manner.
The notion of toxic masculinity and repressed sexuality underlays much of the film’s eventual plotting, with Phil serving as the centre of The Power of the Dog‘s dangerous orbit. There’s such dread in any of his interactions – Campion truly understands the power of understated terror – which makes the relationship between Phil and Peter all the more enticing. As characters that represent two sides of the same coin, the nuances that Cumberbatch and Smit-McPhee inject into these two men is impossibly alluring. That Phil presents as so horrifically dominant only strengthens the supposedly submissive Peter, with his eventual primal instinct revealing itself in a fashion that is ironically more brutal than anything Phil could ever muster.
Offsetting them are the more traditional manifestations of fear that Phil evokes in George and Rose. Both cowering to his influence, the film wisely doesn’t elaborate on George’s own relationship with Phil, instead focusing on his new bride who unravels in an environment overseen by a dangerous animal who is constantly on the hunt. Dunst so easily could have leaned into a melodramatic stance as her hysteria takes over, but, like so much of the film’s subtlety, her undoing is measured; the actress likely to finally see her due as a Supporting player this coming awards season.
Cumberbatch, whose Best Actor nomination is all but secured, and Smit-McPhee truly govern Campion’s disquieting film though. Both performers dancing with each other throughout, transcending their archetypal outlines with a genuine danger that further drives home the filmmaker’s unmatched ability to tell a story free from the restraints of insulting exposition. A visually sumptuous drama, The Power of the Dog will stay with you long after its perturbing final act.
The Power of the Dog is currently screening in select Australian theatres. It will be limitedly released in American theatres from November 17th, 2021, before streaming globally on Netflix from December 1st.