Jane Campion’s simmering portrait of repression on a ranch in Montana is an absolute triumph. Never has the expansive West felt so utterly claustrophobic.
Power of the Dog is the latest outing from Jane Campion and features an all-star cast led by Benedict Cumberbatch. Cumberbatch plays Phil Burbank, the abusive leader of a ragtag group of cowboys. What initially seems an odd casting choice reveals itself to be inspired, and Cumberbatch is blinding on screen as the fierce and conflicted ranch owner.
Phil represents a black hole in the film, consuming not only himself but everyone who comes in close contact with him. His most tenured victim in that regard, seems to be his brother George Burbank. The constant abuse and belittling by Phil over the years has made the soft hearted George grow more and more timid. Jesse Plemmons is beautifully understated in this role and presents a great contrast to his pernicious costar. The cast is rounded out by Kirsten Dunst and Kodi Smit-Mcphee. Dunst plays the grieving widow Rose, who is a worried mother and acts as an emotional refuge for George. Smit-McPhee plays Peter, Rose’s peculiar and scraggly son, who is a misfit and easy target in the unforgiving Montana setting.
Campion’s assured direction stands out here, maybe even more-so than the stellar performances. The pacing was patient and absolutely necessary given the massive amounts of psychosexual subtext present in this film. Her compositions and the cinematography from Ari Wegner were evocative and painterly, confining our stifled characters in windows and doors, against the vast western landscape. This is her best film and easily one of the best directed this year.
Anxiety and dread is palpable throughout Power of the Dog and while much of it comes from Cumberbatches’ harrowing presence, it is emphasized even more by Jonny Greenwood’s haunting score. Already tense scenes are underlined by discordant strings and a staccato piano that created an almost smothering atmosphere. The offkey music did a great job highlighting how out of sync our characters were with each other and, even more-so, with the outside world. Their true nature is persistently corralled, or (in the case of Phil) even castrated, much like the cattle they tend to.
The true core of the film is the budding complex relationship between Phil and Peter. Peter starts off by being on the receiving end of Phils hate. He is verbally and emotionally abused by Phil and everyone else on the ranch. He stays mostly reclusive as a defense mechanism, preferring his studies and art, to the harsh treatment of others. Phil, on the other hand, sees Peter as a weakness in himself he was forced to kill a long time ago, and initially resents him for it. By endeavoring to emulate his late father figure and companion, Phil attempts to connect with Peter and teach him some things. Peter views this as a potential lifeline to help him navigate a cruel and obtuse world.
Power of the Dog subtly tackles themes of masculinity and the cycle of violence. It highlights how denying one’s true nature can be a disease that is inflicted not just upon you, but those around you. Campion confidently paints these ideas using a powerhouse cast and, in turn, crafts one of the best films of 2021.