THE POWER OF THE DOG Review
A tale set in the American Mid-West about a stoic, ranch hand/cowboy that struggles with his masculinity and develops a gay, but toxic relationship that threatens both men's families has generated plenty of award buzz. Brokeback Mountain is an emotional and at times uncomfortable watch that is atmospheric in production and offers nuanced performances. The Power of The Dog is no different, but offers a level of complexity surronding it's depiction of masculinity, which is nothing more than you would expect from Jane Campion.
The Power of The Dog stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Phil Burbank, who runs the family farm before his brother (Jessie Plemons) returns with a new wife (Kirsten Dunst) and step-son (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Phil's lecherous behaviour conflicts with his sister-in-law and a strange power dynamic with his effeminate nephew.
Campion's return to the directing chair in over 10 years is nothing short of exceptional. Every frame and shot feels like a painting, capturing the setting with soft naturalistic lighting and rugged costumes. Backed by an acoustic score, the movie feels dusty like its setting.
Based on Thomas Savage's novel, Campion breaks the film into chapters which could make the film staggered but here it flows and building the characters as it progresses. The movie slowly gains momentum, but once it hits its peak it keeps you hooked.
Cumberbatch saunters into every scene, a distinct drawl of a voice commanding respect he doesn't deserve. He is a creep who models who he is on his mentor, Bronco Henry, who we never see except through the loving ways Phil talks about him. Through those brief mentions and Phil's character, it is clear the profound impact this male influence had on Phil's work ethic, world view and possibley even sexuality.
Jane Campion's previous films, namely The Piano, are great depictions of toxic masculinity, male friendships and the importance of male role models. Here is no different with Phil's relationship with his nephew, Peter, who has clearly lacked a male influence in his life. Now he finds it in this abusive, demanding and closeted man, making for intense and complex viewing. The scenes between the two feel shift between coming-of-age drama and sexually-charged thriller. Longing looks between the two are interpreted differently, with Peter finding a stronger male role model than his new step-father, and Phil finding a protege that he develops strong, unrequited feeelings towards.
Phil's other relationships are not as thematically intriguing but intense none the less. His relationship with his brother George, a timid but affectionate man who struggles to express himself except around his new wife, establish the type of man Phil is and his view on masculinity. Phil's new sister-in-law Rose, a subdued and under utilised btu still fiery Kirsten Dunst, has equally tense scenes with Phil. Never has a duelling piano and violin been brimming with erotic tension.
The Power of the Dog is a complex Western that explores masculinity in various forms with a respect to audiences, to allow them to read into a movie and find the meaning they see. Expertly directed, with nuanced performances this is one of the year's best and one well worth revisting time and time again.