The Power of the Dog

The Power of the Dog ★★★★

Super, super odd; but seriously good. Jane Campion’s latest is not only a fascinating character study, that really digs deep into the psyches of its central characters, it’s also a proper revisionist effort—challenging gender conventions, social and sexual attitudes, and our general perceptions of the western genre as a whole.

The film is set largely at a remote Montana cattle ranch in 1925—a time when the last remaining fringes of the western frontier appear to be on the cusp of civilisation. Campion presents us with some fascinating characters, the four principles being ranch-owning brothers, Phil and George Burbank (Cumberbatch and Plemons respectively), George’s newly-wed wife, Rose (Dunst), and the latter’s son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Our narrative very much centres on these four individuals and the relationships they build with one another. Campion’s real genius is the way she gradually develops each of these relationships over the course of the film—certain attitudes and feelings are seeded early on in proceedings, that then get gradually unpacked and reappraised later in the story. The manner and sentiment behind these relationships are broad and varied: a mix of tenderness and affection (George and Rose); intimidation and prejudice (Phil towards Peter); bitterness and pure animosity (Rose towards Phil, and vice versa); and jealousy and resentment (Phil towards George). On the one hand, we find ourselves presented with characters who still retain an evident romantic attachment to the past and the old frontier life, while on the other we find those who are desperate to catch up with the modernised world. Others again find themselves caught between the two and not sure which way to turn. It results in a curious clash of personalities and intentions—a real melting pot of agonisingly tense conversations and mysterious interactions that threaten to boil over at any moment.

The mental health of each of these four key individuals gets called into question throughout the film, and it’s quite extraordinary how Campion elects to dissect them. Subtlety and subtext can be found in abundance here—so much is implied without being overtly stated: a character’s sexual leaning and their psychological bearing; habits and gestures that reveal an individual’s emotional repression and internal torment; calculated subversions that slowly chip away at a person’s resolve; awkward and often strained dynamics between certain characters that are born out of seemingly incidental conversations and occurrences. There are details about Phil and George’s past that are mentioned in passing but seldom elaborated upon, forcing us to try and piece together a more complete picture of the pair ourselves. The two don’t seem to see eye to eye anymore, suggesting that they each harbour prior guilts or personal affronts that have not been properly addressed. The rancorous relationship shared between Phil and Rose is likewise one that runs deep, yet we only catch hints of what fuel’s the pair’s rage—Phil taunting Rose by whistling a melody that she is struggling to play at the piano is just one of the many ways he repeatedly tries to undermine her; while Rose’s contempt for the man is fuelled largely by the latter’s continued attempts to ridicule her son. There is, at least, no question about where our sympathies should lie: Phil is an obnoxious bully, and there are few redeeming sides to his character (at least for large portions of the film, that is). There’s an awful lot that Campion leaves for us to unpack here; so much, in fact, that one viewing simply cannot possibly do all of it justice.

On a technical level, the film is sublime. It’s beginning to sound like a redundant thing to say, but Jonny Greenwood’s score is yet another triumph that perfectly captures the film’s changing tones and moods. Ari Wegner’s cinematography is likewise stunningly handled: a curious cross between anamorphic and spherical framing that showcases the wide-open Montanan (though actually New Zealand) vistas and the dingier interiors with equal proficiency. The performances are also outstanding from all of the four principal cast members, with each retaining an enigmatic quality that never gives too much away. Cumberbatch has rightfully been praised for his turn as the unsavoury lead, Phil Burbank, but personally I think Kodi Smit-McPhee deserves to be celebrated the most for his intriguing portrayal of Rose’s misunderstood son, Peter. The way his character is developed is remarkable: beginning as this effeminate, weedy presence, who is repeatedly mocked and verbally abused by Phil and the macho ranch-hands around him, only to then slowly reveal a hidden side to his personality that is not immediately apparent; a maturity and resoluteness that belies his wiry, fragile frame, and which completely shatters our misplaced summations of his character to begin with. The role he plays towards the film’s end is truly astonishing, with Campion essentially delivering one of the most unexpected pieces of character subversion I have seen in quite some time.

Quite honestly, it’s a film that keeps you double guessing your own readings and interpretations of its characters and its strange scenarios the more you think about it. One that begs to be revisited I think. A really remarkable piece of work.

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