Jane Campion’s return to the big screen is a resounding success as Benedict Cumberbatch steals the show in this tense, psychosexual western drama.
The Power of the Dog, Jane Campion’s triumphant return to the big screen after a 12-year hiatus, is now in cinemas. The film—an adaptation of the book of the same name by Thomas Savage—stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Phil, a sadistic farmer who psychologically torments his brother George’s family (Jesse Plemons).
Phil and George are close siblings, so close in fact that they sleep in the same room even as adults. The brothers are also the antithesis of one another. George is a modern man, moving on with the times during America’s famous ‘roaring 20s’, whilst Phil is a man stuck in the past. Which is bad news for George’s new wife, Rose (Kristen Dunst), who encapsulated everything Phil cannot be, nor have.
Academy Award-winner Campion is back on form. Her direction is typically masterful, she is in total control of this film and this story. Campion’s ability to capture the distinctive characters and the spacious desolate locations is remarkable. Her command of the camera is on full display and she doesn’t shy away from using it in different ways. Campion will often show us an expansive wide shot, followed by a shot that verges on micro-photography of a flower blowing in the wind and they fit perfectly together. Cutting between two starkly different shots can often feel jarring, but Peter Sciberras’ editing is anything but. Every cut feels meticulously chosen and methodically timed—you won’t find many better edited films this year.
Campion, who also penned the screenplay, crafts wildly different personalities who all feel fleshed out and real. This story is a slow burn and glacial pacing reflects that, yet Campion manages to keep it engaging and it never feels boring. The film is slow, but tense, it savours every moment and keeps you there for what feels like a little too long but ultimately isn’t. Jonny Greenwood’s haunting score allows the anticipation to build in those quiet moments and really hammers home the overall tone of the film.
Ari Wegner’s cinematography is some of the most beautiful of the year. Captured in conjunction with ultra-Panavision 70 anamorphic lenses, the wide-angle lenses are synonymous with the western genre and perfect for making the landscapes look absolutely gorgeous. Not only does Wegner capture vast sweeping landscapes, but also firm close-ups that feel as though we are inside the characters’ heads feeling what they feel and thinking what they think.
Campion’s ability to capture the distinctive characters and the spacious desolate locations is remarkable
The Power of the Dog feels like a commentary on how homophobia shapes our ideas of masculinity and what it means to be a man. Phil is queer and to him, Rose represents love for his brother, a love between a man and a woman that Phil feels as though he needs, but can never have. He knows, because it happened with Bronco Henry (Phil’s ex-lover), who is a looming presence in the film and in Phil’s life, that if he ever finds the kind of love George has found with Rose, he won’t be able to have them move in and live on the ranch. Phil will never be able to live openly with his love, and he resents George and Rose for that. He takes out this anger and bitterness on Rose by embarrassing her in front of George’s parents, being ostentatious and hyper-masculine around her to make her feel uncomfortable, and small, pushing her to the brink of madness and deep into alcoholism.
Phil projects these feelings and his insecurity onto those around him, those who appear weaker and less manly. Mainly Kodi Smit-McPhee’s Peter. Peter is a young boy and, while it isn’t stated explicitly in the film, he is most definitely queer-coded. Phil befriends Peter, seemingly to rid him of his ‘femininity’. But it is clear as the films goes on, Phil sees himself in Peter and the two grow closer. McPhee and Cumberbatch share many scenes and they both bounce off one another exceptionally. They share emotional moments where Phil almost lets his guard down, and moments that feel, at times, deliberately uncomfortable.
The story is lined with subtext about toxic masculinity’s impact on women and queer men and that would not work if these performances were not as good as they are. Plemons, Dunst, McPhee, Cumberbatch are all phenomenal. The queerness of this film is subtextual and is not particularly the main point, but for many people it will be the thing that makes this film more than just another Western. While it would have been nice to see this queer character portrayed by an openly queer actor who could convey and understand the feelings Phil is having far better than Cumberbatch, who has come under fire before for his portrayal of a queer man when he played Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, Cumberbatch does give a compelling, career-best performance.
The Power of the Dog is a tense, magnetic film anchored by brilliant performances, and driven home by a legendary writer-director who understands her craft to a degree most directors should dream of achieving.
Words by Lewis Royle
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