Director: Jane Campion
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Thomasin McKenzie
Run Time: 126 mins
The Power Of The Dog is director Jane Campion’s first feature film since 2009’s Bright Star. Her foray into the Western genre is set in 1920s Montana but filmed in Campion’s native New Zealand. This is an existential piece centred on power dynamics.
Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Burbank (Jesse Plemons) both live and run a profitable ranch and are the polar opposite of each other. Phil is a serpent-like, slippery and angry presence who has a disregard for personal hygiene and revels in his unkemptness. George is a more introverted and kind-hearted individual. He doesn’t really fit in with the gang, even though the gang display signs of respect. Phil simultaneously bullies and relies on George, often calling him ‘Fatso’. Phil displays an admiration for Bronco Henry, a figure who we do not see in the film, who acted as a mentor to him and possibly served a more homoerotic function. When their gang dine at an inn run by Rose (Kirsten Dunst), a former cinematic pianist, Phil belittles her effeminate son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) to the point of driving Rose to tears. George comforts her and the pair then fall in love, with Rose ultimately moving in to the house, sending Phil in to a seething, incandescent rage. Phil taunts Rose and has nothing but disdain for her, driving her to the point of alcoholism and depression. This dynamic is further disturbed by Peter, a young adult who struggles to fit in with his homosexuality. He makes paper flowers and is studying to be a surgeon and his arrival at the house marks as a turning point in the relationships between the characters.
The Power Of The Dog is an atmospheric, slow-burning yet fascinating character study from the revered director. It features some brilliant performances. Benedict Cumberbatch gives possibly a career-best performance as Phil, a man with a masculine crisis. He conveys the seething and bullish nature of the character perfectly, going to great depths with his method acting by chain smoking to the point of nicotine poisoning and refusing to bathe and interact with Kirsten Dunst. A scene mid-way in the film where Rose is practicing the piano for a later dinner is particularly chilling as she struggles to perform the piece and Phil cruelly plays it faultlessly on his banjo out of sight. This is a masterful performance and one of the best of the year.
Jesse Plemons is reliably strong as George and Kirsten Dunst also makes an impression as Rose, although her character is sidelined as the film progresses. Kodi Smit-McPhee is excellent as Peter, even if he is rather old for the role, but the brilliance of his performance lies in that he doesn’t convey what his character agenda is. Smit-McPhee is no stranger to the Western with his electrifying performance in Slow West.
Technically, the film is handsomely shot by Ari Wegner, whose captivating vistas of the Western landscape invoke wonder and magic. There is a pensive string-based score by Jonny Greenwood, which brilliantly assists in creating an uneasy atmosphere.
The Power Of The Dog is an enigmatic experience with powerhouse performances. It is deserving of its praise and the unexpected fierce ending creeps up on you. Although the film is slow in its pacing, the ending asks the audience to reconsider what you have witnessed and you’ll want to watch it again to piece the character motivations, where it is a richer and more multi-layered experience.