“For what kind of man would I be if I did not help my mother? If I did not save her?”
When is a western not a western? When we talk about westerns in cinema, something very clear comes to mind for most. It could be the sound of jangling spurs ringing out as a mysterious stranger walks into the crowded saloon of a small frontier town; or perhaps the sight of two figures, face to face in a dusty street, hands by their pistols. The Power Of The Dog has none of those iconic moments; but what it does have is something compelling in a much different way.
In 1925 Montana, ranch-owning brothers Phil and George Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons) meet Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst) and her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) while staying at Gordon’s inn during a cattle drive. George finds himself to be taken by Gordon; whereas Phil’s abrasive nature sees him openly mocking Peter in front of his employees and mother. When George and Rose begin a relationship, the merging of the two families leads both to abusive mind games and to unlikely connections…
Jane Campion’s back catalogue is relatively short, but impactful, and The Power Of The Dog joins that catalogue with much gusto and passion. Adapted by Campion from the novel of the same name by the late Thomas Savage, this film is a psychological drama which uses the desolate and lonely landscape of rural Montana to frame an intense and emotional narrative with beautiful, sweeping shots of dusty plains, balanced by tight and colourful shots of a flowing river, accented by the lavish interior of the Burbank’s ranch house. The cinematography is important to discuss early on because this film is beautiful beyond belief, and the work put in by Campion and her D.P. Ari Wegner to frame the narrative effectively is incredible. There are numerous moments where each of the central cast take a moment to observe the landscape ahead of them, in a variety of different locales; and the focus on what surrounds them (which is quite often hills of hot dirt) provides an element of claustrophobia in the narrative; the sense that despite being the presence of such a rolling, open space around them; these characters are trapped in their own lives; and that notion is important before discussing the characters themselves. It’s a feeling that is further punctuated by the soundtrack, written by Jonny Greenwood; a soundtrack that often finds itself relying on individual instruments; soft and welcoming piano or guitar, quick, tense violin; playful, yet threatening banjo. The undercurrent of emotion in each scene is electrified (ironically) by these acoustic performances; leaning on era-appropriate instruments to accentuate the tone of each sequence.
All of this works to elevate the performances, and Campion has truly brought out the best in her cast in The Power Of The Dog. Benedict Cumberbatch in particular brings everything he has to Phil Burbank; an aggressive, frightening, vicious man with a troubled past that informs his behaviour in the present. The reasons for his aggressive behaviour are slowly revealed during the course of the narrative, but not in a way which moves to excuse them; his instant dislike for Rose and Peter Gordon is never excused or justified, which is to the film’s credit. There’s a sneering arrogance to Phil which Cumberbatch portrays brilliantly; one scene, where Rose practises playing the piano and Phil mocks her by outplaying the same song on his banjo, is the perfect summation of the effortless cruelty which he shows her; quietly and effectively chipping away at her self-esteem in an attempt to drive her out of his home, despite his brother’s love for her. The conflict and rage within himself drives his encounters with others, and his villainy manifests not in booming shows of violence as per his previous antagonistic roles; but rather he is like a rattlesnake, tightly coiled and ready to strike, his pointed jibes at his fellow cast like the rattle that signifies a much darker, deeper danger lurking within; embroiled in a crisis of masculinity with which he cannot seem to come to terms; spending most of the film covered in filth, a physical manifestation of the rot that has set deep in his core; only appearing jovial when demonstrating his masculinity to the ranch hands, most often at the expense of his brother, or of the Gordons.
Standing apart from this cruelty and barbarism is his brother, George, who operates on the counter to his kin. Plemons brings a quiet dignity to George, portrays a man who is driven more by compassion, but also by appearance. Where Phil is characterised by his filth-covered denim shirts and leather chaps; George is more akin to a three-piece suit and bow tie; a more refined presentation for a man who wishes to be more than just a ranch owner. It is the tenderness within him that leads him to Rose; who responds in kind in a fashion which leads to romance. Plemons strength lies in the silences between the words; the demonstration of the difference in George’s emotional response to his love and to his brother; his desire to see Rose reach what he sees as her full potential, versus the fear he has that his brother will intercede in a way which ruins everything. However, his tenderness and kindness is not pure; and while he acts with the best of intentions, he displays his own variant of toxic masculinity with his wife, driving her towards certain pastimes that she does not want to engage with, because he believes that it would be proper of her in a way that would help their standing in society. Unlike Phil, he does not know that his behaviour is negative; and it is in Rose’s responses, beautifully portrayed by Dunst, that we really feel the effects of his drive.
Dunst herself is a delight in The Power Of The Dog, bringing a performance that moves on so many levels, portraying a woman slowly being broken down by the two men who are closest two her; one intentionally and one by accident. Rose’s coping mechanisms are not at all healthy, and her descent from over-worked yet kindly inn owner to a woman on the verge of a breakdown is devastating to which, heightened by the strength of her performance. Kodi Smit-McPhee also shines; though his role is shorter due to Peter’s time boarding at his college, when he does come to the ranch late in the second act; his presence alters the dynamics of the family in a fascinating way. Smit-McPhee brings a stunning duality to Peter in his performance; widening the character from a soft and kindly boy helping his mother as we see him in the film’s beginning to a character with more wit, an almost conniving angle on the stereotype of the momma’s boy. There is an underlying aggression to him which is left to bubble beneath the surface; his practice in his study to be a surgeon being the first glimpse we get of danger in the boy. He balances out the family appropriately for the final act, and his scenes against Cumberbatch are powerfully compelling; demonstrating that Smit-McPhee still has a lot to offer to cinema.
The Power Of The Dog is a dark, powerful, intensely emotional piece of slow-burning and character-driven cinema that is well-deserving of the slate of awards it has already won, and of the nominations it has achieved that are yet to be decided. This is a slow and considered film, with only brief spikes of action amongst the emotion; the performances are the reason to watch this film. This is probably a career-best performance for both Cumberbatch and for Dunst; with incredible performances from Plemons and Smit-McPhee as well. If this is the kind of cinema you enjoy, then you will love this film; because I did.