In a landscape of rolling hills, few trees, and a beauty that comes harsh and stark, it can be a constant burden to hide: hide secrets, hide identity, hide desire, in a world that refuses to allow for sensitivity and affection. The barely veiled sexual tensions, rivalries, and bristling against conformity leave too many people struggling and their reaction to this struggle can be a slow withering or an iron fist; either armour is built to hide the interior, or that interior is exposed and neglected.
Jane Campion’s first feature film since 2009, The Power of the Dog (based on the novel by Thomas Savage) sees her tackling a story that might be set in a unique American time and place, yet resonates for much of a culture that promotes certain gender and sexual identities and roles which, we understand now, do not reflect true human nature and being. Campion explores this strange masculinity and its manifestations, its reveberations on women and families, through the lens of the post-wild west.
It’s the mid-1920s in Montana, and brothers Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons) run the successful family ranch. The modern world is taking longer to get to this mainly rural state, but the wild west has long since disappeared, at least in its physical state. But that doesn’t stop Phil from constantly reminiscing about his now-deceased mentor Bronco Henry, who taught him how to make rope from cow hide and castrate a bull, and everything else a rancher needs to know. George runs the business side, and is far more sensitive, more often than not silent in the face of his brother’s low-key bullying.
And yet, theirs is a very co-dependent relationship, with the pair still sharing a bedroom (though the large house clearly has room for more). And more comes, in the form of Rose (Kirsten Dunst), a widow with a teenage son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Rose runs a restaurant in a nearby town, and George wins her heart with his sensitivity and kindness. But George is also blinded by an image of Rose, and doesn’t listen to her needs, leaving her to fend for herself with a class of people who looks down their proverbial noses at her. Meanwhile, Phil resents Rose’s interloping and focuses his low-key bullying on her and her son.
George takes Rose for granted, not giving her the space and tools she needs to adjust to her new situation. Phil also refuses to do so, and so a war of territory, both physical and emotional, begins. As a woman, Rose has little recourse to gain control of her life, and so sinks into drinking. Phil is also losing ground; in the world of the ranch and cowboys to which he forces himself to be dominant (it is mentioned that he studies classics at Yale), he tries to play a certain part, over-compensating to the point of vocal brutality and worse. As Peter gets sucked into this not-so-subtle war, he is both a potential victim and an astute observer, a quick study of Phil’s methodology of control and a son desparate to save his mother.
Campion approaches the material with an eye to the disquieting nature of the tale, steeped in place and identity. Only George seems content with his position in life, at least once he has a wife: he can be the well-dressed man, running the ranch without needing to get his hands dirty, with a pretty wife (whom he does love, at least, though he needs to work on his communication skills) and an eye to gaining some small local power. Rose might have been poor, but at least she knew how to find her way when she had her own business. Phil remains a mystery even to himself; his decision to return to this ranching life, to take it to an extreme in his demeanor, seems odd, until his true longings are dropped in small hints that loom large to certain eyes.
Cumberbatch’s performance is excellent to be sure; he’s not what would naturally come to mind when one thinks of a hard-edged rancher with a bit too strong an attachment to his brother. And yet, his performance is almost too precise; no doubt there is a heart somewhere in Phil’s chest, even if it has been twisted in anger and loss, but it was difficult to comprehend beneath Cumberbatch’s exacting performance. The real strength lies with Dunst and Smit-McPhee. Dunst shows us how a kind and strong woman slowly unravels from neglect and lack of understanding. Smit-McPhee walks a great line between Peter’s lack of awareness of how he appears, scenes of strange macabre fascination, and moments when he knows exactly what’s going on, even if some adults in the room stil treat him like a child.
Each scene driven by desire, anger, love, or shame, set against a a stark world where change is slow to come, leaving its characters in a stagnation that eats away at them, The Power of the Dog bristles with longing and jealousy, at once staring straight ahead and sneaking up behind you, leaving its clues like muddy bootprints tinged with sorrow.
The Power of the Dog
- Jane Campion
- Jane Campion
- Thomas Savage
- Benedict Cumberbatch
- Kirsten Dunst
- Jesse Plemons
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October 11, 2021