The power of the dog, Jane Campion’s first film in 12 years, is worth the wait. An eerie eerie drama set in 1924, the film is an unusually well-made but conservatively restrained historical piece that casts an eerie shadow over the American West. Seen in Montana (though filmed in the rugged southeastern part of New Zealand), it looks convincingly barren, matching the characters’ private desolation.
Campion won the Silver Lion for best instruction at the Venice Film Festival and may well get away with its first Oscar nomination since The piano in 1993. Her film tells the story of George and Phil Burbank, brothers who run a prosperous ranch in southeast Montana by adapting a critically acclaimed but unfairly neglected novel from 1967 by Canadian-American author Thomas Savage. George (Jesse Plemons), who leads the books, is full-bodied, awkward, and kind-hearted. His brother, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch), who prefers the saddle (“I stink and I like it!”), Is thin, fiercely intelligent, and maliciously possessive. When George marries the attractive widow Rose (Kirsten Dunst, his spouse) and moves into the family ranch house with Rose’s teenage son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Phil begins a malicious campaign that makes Rose drink and puts the delicate Peter in his lines of sight.
The elegant suspense-filled scenario is paired with the care and beauty of a spider, and Campion piles on the psychological layers without losing its famous tactile sensuality. Phil Burbank is a particularly ambiguous and memorable character who deserves a place in the cinematic villain canon. A self-proclaimed man’s husband, he lives in the shadow of a Bronco Henry, a deceased cowboy whose exact relationship with Phil is not revealed until well over halfway. And Phil’s initial opposite of Peter, who makes paper flowers and nervously spins a hula hoop when triggered, melts into something completely different as he realizes that the feminine teenager is more straight than he first imagined.
The cast admits itself admirably. Cumberbatch influences a very good American accent, an entertaining stiff-backed cowboy gait and delivers a performance where even the clatter of a banjo gets a menacing aspect. Plemon’s sweetness is nicely complemented by Dunst, who seems to get bruised at the slightest insult, and whose descent into alcoholism stimulates the film’s shocking third act. Smit-McPhee, who has worked stably since he was ten years old, gets many miles out of his wide-eyed eyes and stopping lips.
In its early, literary way, The power of the dog sticks a scalpel in the myth of the West, centered on a harsh individualist whose manhood masks a psychosis of sexual oppression and self-hatred. Campion, who has built a career out of drilling deep into the feminine psyche, seems to enjoy mapping the darker areas of the masculine nature. That she is moderately successful is a tribute to her taste – especially in her choice of subject – as well as her intelligence behind the camera. The film, like the book on which it is based, may be too subdued for today’s audiences, but like the biblical passage from which the title gets its name, it has sharp teeth.
Read more reviews from Nathaniel Bell here.