Director: Jane Campion
Stars: Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Benedict Cumberbatch
Though she’s hardly been inactive, the return of Jane Campion to feature filmmaking is serious news, and her new western has already caused much hubbub after debuting on the festival circuit. Now nestled among the detritus on Netflix, can it make a mark amid so much noise and ‘content’?
Montana, 1925. The ‘west’ – as so-often revered and reimagined in popular cinema – is over. The modern world has come. Along with it, the definitions of masculinity are gradually starting to shift or, at least, come into question. Campion’s film takes tradition to task.
Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a traditionalist. Some might say conservative in the truest definition. Positioning himself as the epitome of righteousness around which all others must pivot, Phil dishes out disdain with ease. His sensitive brother George (Jesse Plemons) doesn’t cut the mustard, having failed – in Phil’s eyes at least – to make a different life for himself, while the effeminate interests of local boy Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) garner outright contempt and disgust.
George has desires on Peter’s mother Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst); a widow and humble restaurateur. And when George acts upon these reciprocated interests and marries Rose, Phil reacts with violent ire. Constantly, it seems, the world is accelerating beyond his capacity to keep pace, and his ways are in danger of becoming obsolete and antiquated.
The Power of the Dog examines the psychological spirals that occur when the world spins faster than those determined to see it slowed down. In the process the film transcends it’s roots in the western – or even the period drama – by presenting a personality trait all-too-recognisable in the contemporary world. Were he alive today, Phil would surely be a red-capped Trumpist, maybe even among those who stormed the capitol. Though he preens as a self-made man, Phil is evidently aching for someone to steer him. Or at least shoulder part of a pain he won’t admit to.
Phil isn’t the only one feeling pressure. A woman used to limited means, Rose finds herself expected to perform piano for the governor at George’s behest. He’s even splashed out on a mini-grand for her. When she nervously practices – only to be upstaged by the embittered Phil on his humble bango – it speaks of a class tension running through the family that is woven firmly into their varying politics. George dresses like ‘city folk’; Phil is almost always caked in mud. The latter sometimes seems maintained so as to undercut and rebuke the former. Rose often finds herself caught in the midst of their psychological warfare. Is it this that drives her to drink?
In his private life, Phil displays a hitherto unseen sensuality. Absconding to a nearby glade, he brushes his skin with silk and is moved to masturbate. Jonny Greenwood underscores with a theme that is abundantly romantic. That Campion then cuts to Peter links these two characters suggestively. Is Phil thinking of his queer-coded nephew-in-law? To provoke the question of repressed homosexuality even further, Campion has Peter find discarded art magazines depicting the naked male form… only for him to then immediately encounter the skinny-dipping Phil in the flesh.
A chapter intertitle separates this brief encounter from the scene that follows, but the baring of male flesh continues as Phil is seen more comfortably nestled among the fellow ranchers; where laying topless with other men is deemed acceptable. Campion navigates around and between these codes, often abutting them in this manner.
“Might as well try and warm this place,” says a member of the help to a boy with firewood, and the picture at large is icy. With crisp, wintry light flooding her frames, and nagging guitar plucking and yawning strings on the soundtrack (Greenwood drawing his own psychic links to There Will Be Blood), Campion conjures a brittle vision of the west. It’s an echo of the fragility of Phil’s ego and worldview; a landscape that is all right so long as it isn’t challenged or disrupted. It’s also an echo of the draughty tensions within the family home, as Rose strives to live up to George’s love for her.
Campion’s cast are uniformly superb. Cumberbatch’s against-type work initially jars, but he takes to it well, and it’s quite easy to abandoned pre-conceived notions of him. Dunst is at her most tragic here, and the talk of Oscar recognition – even as a nominee – isn’t unfounded. Plemons and Smit-McPhee, too, bring realism to men not tailored to the country they’re situated in; their hearts attuned to a future not yet written.
Beneath everything is a persistent sense of dread; that all of the film’s disparate threads are conspiring toward some terrible end. This steers us through the sometimes-ambling, but always inherently interesting episodes along the way. It’s a queasily uncomfortable, strange and wiry film, with a subdued yet fascinating final act that’s nothing if not eerie. It’s not easily enjoyed, as such, but is always deserving of your admiration and attention.
Campion’s path might often be described this way. She prods and pokes and questions and defies in an effort to upset the status quo. That’s as true of The Power of the Dog as anything else she’s put her name to, be that in film or television. Appearing as it has on Netflix, this effort skewers the line between the two. And reminds us that she’s a firebrand irrespective of which arena her work inhabits.