Benedict Cumberbatch in The Power of the Dog (2021)
Jane Campion is back. It’s been over a decade since her previous film Bright Star, a nineteenth-century romance of sensual proportions, where the stunning visuals trace the details of its story. Her latest is a slow-building queer Western thriller, simmering in personal aggression and defeat. As the filmmaker journeys through adapting Thomas Savage’s Western novel of the same name, she leaves so many haunting treasures along the way. Reverberating emotion is carefully packed in each and every frame. A moment between two characters sharing a cigarette, made exciting and unpredictable by the power of Campion’s eye. The richness of her storytelling is a feast with lingering leftovers. From the memorable Jonny Greenwood score to the startling accomplishments of brilliant casting, The Power of the Dog has the kind of staying power that warrants several revisits. Benedict Cumberbatch has never been better, Kodi Smit-McPhee commands his scenes, and Kirsten Dunst reminds why she’s one of the most compelling in the game. Campion’s tackling of toxic masculinity and lost souls is an unsettling piece of storytelling.
At the core of this film’s gripping power is the dialogue. In Campion’s adaptation of Savage’s novel, words roll off the tongue and lines are burned into memory. Tension hangs in the air as many of the conversations unfold. I find myself hanging onto every word, as though the source of its threads are being quickly pulled away. Campion amasses a remarkable group of actors to light a fire to each conversation, whether through words or flickers across faces. Take a scene of the character Rose (Kirsten Dunst) playing a newly brought in piano. As she practices one afternoon, she hears the distinct walk and whistle of Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) entering a ranch, owned by Phil’s brother and Rose’s new husband George (Jesse Plemons). A little rusty, just as she starts relaxing into a melody, Phil interrupts with the strings of his banjo every time. No words spoken, but a clear and assured understanding that he doesn’t want her around. In fact her torments her, and her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) from a previous marriage. He’s had a bubbling resentment ever since George’s announcement of his and Rose’s elopement. The driving force of the film’s plot starts with their dynamic, an unpredictable tornado of fear and thunderstruck awe. Slowly and patiently, the story digs deeper into Phil’s repressed emotions.
The Power of the Dog starts with a large canvas, a vast setting with land as far as the eye can see. But there is more to the story that Campion skillfully draws out with precision. Even with characters, they are introduced so quietly and unassumingly, yet carry a perceptive presence. The story unfolds in a puzzle, becoming more and more intimate when another piece is revealed. Campion brings so much attention to detail; the camera lingers on small moments and create an echo for you to follow later on. It’s an approach that maintains mystery in her storytelling and in the characters. Slowly and steadily, the performances add more pieces to the puzzle that start to crack the foundations they have internalized for themselves. In his best work to date, Cumberbatch carries an aggressive presence throughout. All the while, emotions inch nearer to the surface and he forcefully keeps them in check. It’s a truly fascinating portrayal of a lost soul, so far from that surface and deep within his internalized need to be “tough” all the time. Adhering to strict pressurized rules of behavior. Leading to toxic masculinity that manifests in different ways, as he torments those who are loving, those who are expressing truth in his wake.
Cumberbatch carries the film so strongly, though certainly is not the only performer who flourishes under Campion’s direction. Kirsten Dunst has a quiet staying power in the film. On the surface, not a character with “a lot to do” in the sense that her performance is not particularly action-based in obvious, outward ways. Rose has an internalized slow-build, a rollercoaster devoid of screams, and Dunst plays her exceptionally. Rose finds herself in the company of strangers, and while amongst her new husband George (cue adorable chemistry with Jesse Plemons), she’s not in the position of basking in a honeymoon. Grieving from a personal loss, struggling with her own inner battles, worried for her son (who is on the receiving end of upsetting taunts). Dunst conveys such wonderful range, with such subtly, and a truthfulness that she reveals under the influence. Just as accomplished is Kodi Smit-McPhee playing her son Peter. Also engaging in the sense of mystery around the plot and the trajectory of characters, he does a resonating job. He commands each of his scenes, and in a particularly exciting two-hander with Cumberbatch, makes the sharing of a cigarette all the more riveting to watch.
With a great many Valentines for a slow-building story, Jane Campion crafts a simmering mysterious drama with a precise vision and observing eye. As has become known and expected with her work over the years, The Power of the Dog looks stunning. The accomplished cinematography by Ari Wegner illuminates rich details. The visuals go hand in hand with the story, reflecting shifting perspectives and a setting that grows a little bit smaller as the story progresses. With more intimate scenes, a wonderful ensemble of actors work their magic alongside one another to keep the fires burning. Packed in each and every frame is a desire to revisit them, to bask in the clues Campion so richly shares. Here’s hoping another decade does not pass between her next film and The Power of the Dog.
The Power of the Dog had its world premiere September 10th at the Toronto International Film Festival. TIFF21 runs September 9-18, 2021.