Jane Campion is back and she’s taking no prisoners.
Sometimes critical reception can serve as a disappointing amuse-bouche to a film’s release, often leaving viewers feeling frustrated at the final product. The Power of the Dog premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September to widespread acclaim, building hype for the film’s potential Best Picture nomination and Cumberbatch’s chances at nabbing Best Actor. Sometimes these films (like Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri) can disappoint on release. I’ve fallen prey to that trap before, leaving something that seemed like a sure thing feeling only bitter disappointment. Once in a while, these things surprise me, going above and beyond to be more than I’d ever wanted or hoped they could be.
The Power of the Dog exceeds all expectations; a whirlwind of incredible performances, soaring camera work, and an incredible score from Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood.
It’s becoming commonplace to hail a film about toxic masculinity but they rarely serve such nuanced and innovative suggestions about the origins of an individual’s emotional existence. Teasers of the final reveal are all over Campion’s visual designs, but the real proof of her goals is in the language of the film. Nothing is ever outright stated. Characters walk from scene to scene mulling over their existences and aiming to accomplish goals they would never put voice to. It’s a complicated line to walk, that between subtlety and celebration, but Campion’s script (adapted from the novel by Thomas Savage) lends more weight to the unspoken than anything that could possibly be said out loud. It is, after all, a visual language.
And the charismatic Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a visual totem, an icon that serves to hold our gaze when we can no longer bear to look. Ranchhands all around him, he walks up and down his home staring down all that come before him. His brother, George (Jesse Plemons), is a timid-but-sweet individual that is growing ever-weary of Phil’s aggressive bullying. After a cattle drive the brothers decide to rest at the local hotel, run by Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and her son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Rose is joyous but sensitive, ushering adoration on her son as he crafts paper flowers and helps serve the hotel guests, but Peter is another story. Peter seems to have a disconnect from true human understanding, broken off as he is a lanky and intelligent young man in the land of machismo and dirt. When George marries Rose neither Peter nor Phil seem all that happy with the arrangement, but these two will come together and decide the fate of the entire family whilst settling their own melodramatic sentiments.
There’s something not quite right about how menacing a banjo can be in the right hands. Phil’s hands, the agents of his brutality and ingenuity, turn it into the most brutal instrument since its chance to grace the bayous of Deliverance. Music very much factors into Campion’s story, created through a partnership with Johnny Greenwood in his second-best score of the year, and it serves as a disconnect between George and Phil. The brothers are opposite each other, one wishing for high society dinners with his wife while the other never wants to bathe again. The latter’s over-compensating masculinity is tied into the use of his hands, whether they be used to beat a horse while calling it a “bitch” or making rope, and it’s this that proves his undoing.
Campion is not subtle, allowing us to view Phil through the lens of Peter as sexualities are called into question and suppressed at the same time. What blooms from these interactions is somewhere between familial and lustful. Kerchiefs are sensual, rope is violent and sexy, and the balls of a steer can be removed barehanded to prove what a macho figure one can be. Everything is shot with a voyeur’s gaze, allowing for uncomfortably intimate moments that were never meant to be seen. Nothing is hidden, but at no point is anything stated outright. Instead, characters interact in human ways and all we can do is sit back and hope for the best. What results is a career-defining performance from Cumberbatch and Smit-McPhee, but the supporting Plemons and Dunst are breathtaking in their screentime and serve to hold up the war between these two outcasts on a Montana ranch.
While Power of the Dog may not be my favorite film of the year it remains undoubtedly one of the best. It’s a mean little film, personal and massive at the same time. Most will be baffled by its middle sections, but if you connect with what the entire crew is trying to do you’ll walk away from the final act in awe of the story you now have to sit and grapple with.
The Power of the Dog is now streaming on Netflix.