The Power of the Dog
Jane Campion’s return to the big screen is a haunting western triumph
Jane Campion is considered one of the pioneering female directors to break into mainstream consideration after her success with The Piano (1993). However, she’s found it hard to find continuity with her projects, her last film having been released 12 years ago. While she has sporadically worked in television with the series Top of the Lake (2013-2017) it is a joy to see her return to her original format with The Power of the Dog(2021).
The Power of the Dog is adapted from a novel by Thomas Savage. Taking place in the dying West, in a ranch in Montana in 1925, we follow two brothers, the hard and tough Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and the shy college dropout George (Jesse Plemons). When George marries a widow named Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and brings her to live on the ranch with her son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Phil feels slighted and abandoned resorting to tormenting his new sister-in-law.
Campion has shown to have a particular adeptness at crafting silent suffering to the point that viewers are pleading for her characters to burst. But rarely does Campion give in to a predictable climax, she’d rather subvert expectations with arcs that seem to make complete sense, but which viewers are wholly taken by surprise. The Power of the Dog could have very easily resorted to be an exploration of the toxic masculinity embodied by Phil, and while this is certainly at the center of Campion’s film, the toll and suffering that Rose undergoes is also laid at the core. It is this torturous dynamic, which settles in viewers’ stomachs and begins to grow like an ulcer as the runtime clocks higher that is the greatest tonal achievement of the film. Campion expertly weaves her narrative with a patience and subtlety that make her restraint in dramatic scenes even more effective. It is only when the credits roll that you realize you’d been holding your breath for so long.
Campion does a fantastic job with her performers. Since The Power of the Dog relies so much in psychological torment and masculine insecurities, it is up to the managing of her actors to make the film truly work. Cumberbatch delivers his best performance of his career, in a role that finally digs into the unlikeable and toxic qualities that were only restrainedly explored in his now cliched role as an obnoxious genius in Sherlock (2010-2017), Doctor Strange (2016), and The Imitation Game (2014). In The Power of the Dog Cumberbatch fully lets loose, bringing an immersive and truly repulsive performance that is smart to never veer into caricature territory. The British actor is a haunting presence that surrounds each frame even if he hasn’t been on screen for a while. Meanwhile Dunst is spectacular in a role that is much more understated and at the service of the narrative and the contrasting with Cumberbatch rather than becoming showy Oscar-bait. It is a show of skill and humility towards the general film that is admirable and incredibly effective. Both Dunst and Cumberbatch’s performances are masterclasses in acting, and placed at the center of the entire film by Campion. Thankfully, such trust by the Kiwi director pays off.
The Power of the Dog feels like the kind of silent and subtle western that is simply not made anymore. Many will be reminded of Jeremiah Johnson (1972) in the overwhelming solitude and feral environment that the characters face. However, unlike the more conservationist tendencies of the Robert Redford film, The Power of the Dog is more cynical and ruthless in its view of nature and humanity. In that sense, Campion’s film can feel like watching a documentary on hunting animals, only the animals in this sense are human beings. It can prove to be a dark and rough watch, yet rewarding in its expert craft.
In the end, The Power of the Dog is a spectacular and long-awaited return from Campion to the big screen. She expertly crafts an incredibly unique film, centering on two insuperable performances and creating a dreading and gripping aura that will follow you long after the credits have rolled.