Even though Jane Campion’s Oscar- and Palme d’Or-winning masterwork The Piano was released 28 years ago, you can still detect its echoes in her latest film, The Power of the Dog. Campion has once again created an evocative period piece set in the untamed wilderness of New Zealand.
A harsh man, a sensitive man, and an unmarried mother all appear in this storey. Which instrument does the single mother play? It’s probably obvious. For all that it has in common with Campion’s most well-known work, The Power of the Dog is a much more sinister and disturbing film all on its own. It’s hard to predict the outcome unless you’ve read Thomas Savage’s original novel, from which this film is adapted. As a bonus, it features a spectacular metamorphosis by Benedict Cumberbatch. In other words, he may have told his agent that he was bored of portraying socially awkward scientists and wanted to do something completely different, such as donning a 10-gallon hat while doing it.
It’s 1925 Montana, and Benedict Cumberbatch plays Phil, a cowboy with his brother George (Jesse Plemons) running a profitable cattle ranch. Even though the brothers live together and share a bedroom, they could be from another solar system. It’s easy to see Phil as an archetypal cowboy from the old days, an ornery alpha male who wears a hat and boots all the time, loathes anything as frivolous as taking a bath, and calls his younger brother “Fatso.” He is only content when riding through the plains, and even then, he is not content. And George, who is a well-groomed, smartly-dressed, mild-mannered gentleman, refuses to respond to any of his bothersome sibling’s remarks, which frustrates Phil.
When Cumberbatch portrays Phil, he captures his hatred and rage in his facial expressions, from his mocking laugh to his hand-sucked cheroot. I don’t know what’s more deserving of an Oscar nomination: him yelling obscenities while playing the banjo. Cumberbatch’s gripping portrayal, on the other hand, remains a mystery as to why Phil has such a hard time swallowing. What is it about him that makes George feel the need to be poked and prodded? Why can’t he relish the fact that he’s so good at what he does and that his ranch employees adore him? What kind of harm has he suffered? In a nutshell, what exactly is wrong with this guy?
In any case, George’s announcement that he has married Rose (Kirsten Dunst), the shy, widowed proprietor of a neighbouring hotel, only serves to worsen Phil’s problems. Her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) will also be staying with her during his summer break from college. The slim, effete, artsy Peter, on the other hand, is far from Phil’s ideal of what a rancher should be like.
It’s as though the simmering hostility could erupt at any time. However, Campion, who also wrote and directed the film, manages to keep us on our toes. We, too, live in a creepy mansion with an evil brother-in-law or a stuffed and mounted animal head as a constant watchful eye. Rather than rushing through the storey, director Jane Campion takes her time to create a universe that is both terrifying and mystical at the same time.
The film uses a lot of natural light and includes a lot of sensual close-ups of sweat and grime to convey the story’s themes. The structures in this Wild West-themed game look like they’ve stood on the arid Montana landscape for years, despite their origin being in New Zealand. Their horseback riding, rope-splicing, and bull castration skills appear so natural to the audience that it’s hard to imagine how long it took them to learn them. Because of this, you never know what you’re going to find out about the characters until the very end: a reference to ancient Rome, a quick glimpse of doll’s house furnishings, or an out-of-the-blue hula-hooping fit.
The Power of the Dog’s unique transformation from an enormous Western to a sombre Gothic Melodrama where relationships alter, and long-buried secrets are revealed. Some viewers may become bored with the show’s slow-burning psychological mysteries. While some may be turned off by how Campion reinterprets the American frontier drama genre, others will find it enthralling. It shares more than just its frenetic score with There Will Be Blood.
An intelligent picture, even though the plot isn’t entirely evident until the very final scene, it’s well worth the wait. When that scene appears, the meaning of every previous scene becomes crystal clear, and you’re compelled to go back to the beginning and watch the entire thing again.