by Jordan King
Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, a disquieting and portent-filled examination of oppression, repression, and the shackles enforced by the endeavour to be masculine, is a formidable work from a true auteur. Set in 1925 against the dramatic mountainous landscape of Montana (or Otago, New Zealand as is the shooting stand-in), Campion’s latest is a slow-burning affair that time and again refuses to descend into a raging inferno – while we await fire, it’s the steady stream of smoke pouring from the Burbank homestead that proves most deadly.
Benedict Cumberbatch is on career-best form as blackhat Phil Burbank, a bristly and banally cruel rancher and bronco buster who lives alongside his altogether more mannered and gentle younger brother George (Jesse Plemons – brilliant but underused). Phil is visibly frustrated by his brother’s seeming lack of cowboy spirit, witheringly calling him “Fatso” and narrowing his eyes when he declines a drink with the ranch-hands after a long day working, doubling down on his own snarling schtick almost as if to make up for what he believes his brother lacks. This spirit is something instilled in the elder Burbank by old friend and personal hero Bronco Henry. When we see early on that for all his outward hostility and callous demeanour, Phil has fashioned a shrine of sorts to his dead mentor in the form of an inscribed saddle, the way he gently handles it in solitude suggests depths that Cumberbatch and Campion spend the duration of the film carefully excavating.
When George abruptly marries widowed proprietress Rose (Kirsten Dunst), who moves into the Burbank homestead with her teenage son Peter (Kodi Smitt-McPhee) – dubbed “Miss Nancy” for his predisposal to making paper flower arrangements and wearing jeans – Phil is enraged. Rather than shouting or lashing out violently, however, Phil takes a far more insidious approach to try to break Rose’s resolve and force her out. Preying on Rose’s history of alcoholism and sense of isolation in the creaky confines of the Burbank home, Phil psychologically tortures her and her boy in George’s absence. In a particularly arresting sequence, Rose plays piano as Phil mimics her upstairs on his banjo, challenging her to keep up and taunting her with the suggestion that hers is a song that he now owns.
Much of the film’s first two acts circle this cloying clutch for power and dominance as Phil clandestinely tends Bronco Henry’s saddle and bathes in private while bragging publicly about how he loves his dirtiness and demeans Rose into ruination. Whilst Cumberbatch does dastardly with a lick of theatricality, Dunst’s tortured turn as Rose and the lisped cadence and reed-like wispiness of Smitt-McPhee’s Peter seem to set the stage for George’s wife and her child to suffer ceaselessly. But, as the film wears on and we learn more of Phil’s own psychological torture, the secrets that have stoked in him a need to rally against domestication and societal mores, an unexpected and tensely loaded kinship between Phil and the unbecoming Peter turns our expectations of The Power of the Dog’s title and its Biblical roots on us, flooring in the process. As Phil seeks to make a protegee of the young lad, heading out into the mountains with him, things fall into place in a manner that frames the entire film anew, sharply bringing into focus Campion’s spectacular skill for twisting the knife when you’re braced for a bullet to the head.
Devastatingly beautiful landscape shots from expert up-and-comer Ari Wegner bring with them the promise of an oncoming storm, manifest in the form of Cumberbatch’s brutish Phil, and as George, Rose, and Peter do their level best to endure, Wegner picks apart their complexities in close-up with the same skill as she creates mystery and drama in their surroundings with stunning wide shots. On scoring duties, Johnny Greenwood’s ominous intonations ensorcel, carrying the magnitude of his work on There Will Be Blood and forming an almost symbiotic relationship with that earlier composition. Between the delicate balance of stark, gritty imagery and portentous compositions, the restless soul of the story found in the performances and the intricacies of the multifaceted script, Campion crafts a Western that shows us the most brutal of bites are made in the absence of a bark.
The Power of the Dog is out in select cinemas from Friday 19th November!