Movie Review: Jane Campion’s ‘The Power Of The Dog’ is Bold and Vigorous
Director: Jane Campion
Writer: Jane Campion, Thomas Savage (based on the novel by)
Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Thomasin McKenzie
Synopsis: Charismatic rancher Phil Burbank inspires fear and awe in those around him. When his brother brings home a new wife and her son, Phil torments them until he finds himself exposed to the possibility of love.
Jane Campion returns to the big screen after twelve years away to adapt Thomas Savage’s Western novel, a deconstruction of the genre with a patriarchial story of control. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Phil Burbank, a raw leader on his Montana ranch that his co-workers approve of and work under him with total confidence. He shows that he’s a man who is in control, loves it, and doesn’t need a whip to keep people in line. The story turns into a series of mind games when his brother (Jesse Plemons) returns with his new wife, Rose (Kristen Dunst), and her doctor-studying son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee).
Accompanied by Jonny Greenwood’s string-streaking score and Ari Wegner’s deepened cinematography, which might as well win the Oscar at this point, Campion puts on a show that never rushes itself and cuts into several chapters to establish the pace. The film was shot entirely made in New Zealand, Campion’s home country, but you’d be immediately fooled if no one told you that. The American West is on display with the usual tricks of horse riding, lasso waiving, and cattle driving. The difference here is no gun is needed to shed some blood and make a point. There is no John Wayne or Gary Cooper-like figure there making a stand against the bad guys. This is a jungle with only one person taking the spotlight: Phil Burbank.
The Burbank brothers work well together in the cattle business, but the alpha finds his younger brother with his new wife and son encroaching on their territory. They are an unwelcome sight, but instead of shooing them away, Phil decides to make it uncomfortable for both the wife and son, especially the son as Phil implies his mannerisms mean he’s probably not a real man. So he decides to take Peter into his territory, the one he knows, and challenge Peter to survive it. To Phil, as Cumberbatch expresses so brilliantly with hard whiskey and comfortably naked (spoiler alert) in the open, Peter needs to be strong and rugged even to be a doctor instead of trying to shy away from the open range. For Rose, Dunst’s subtlety is perfect as the psychosexual tension coming from Phil shakes the inner peace in her new life. It’s Dunst’s best performance to date.
Campion’s adaptation is bold, using the rolling sands to tow the undercurrent of discontent by one man, the one who holds the power. This is in contrast to the erotic love triangle in Campion’s masterpiece, The Piano, but instead, a homoerotic rodeo touching on all the machismo in the Western world. There’s a cult of personality, less on Phil but on a deceased person named Bronco Henry who’s been dead for years. This part of America conjures up a radically different feeling compared to the cities, one that is awfully quiet and sometimes eerie. Phil Burbank is the personification of the Western anti-hero who does not need to raise his voice to make his presence known and Jane Campion puts it on the screen with intimidating intentions.