Unfolding across the sprawling panoramas of a dusty 1920’s Montana, The Power of the Dog disquietingly draws audiences into a dark western that subverts expectations.
Director Jane Campion, who returns to film after a twelve year hiatus, uses patient and poetic filmmaking in a slow burn film that builds momentum right up until its shocking conclusion.
The Power of the Dog is brimming with both context and sub context and is deeply complex in its themes. Toxic masculinity, repression, power dynamics, gender roles and sexuality are just a few of the themes explored. Yet though The Power of the Dog will undoubtedly challenge audiences, it never threatens to alienate them.
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This is largely due in part to its cast, none of whom can be faulted. Benedict Cumberbatch has never been better in his role as Phil Burbank, a cruel and hard faced rancher who takes Umbridge to his brother’s new wife and her son. For audiences who may still best associate Cumberbatch with some of his previous roles, it is fascinating to see him play a character like this – horrible and vindictive, yet still impossibly engaging.
The objects of Phil’s disaffection are Rose Gordon and her son Peter Gordon, played respectively by Kirsten Dunst and Kodi Smit-McPhee. Rose goes through a myriad of emotions, and Dunst captures all the facets of Rose’s character perfectly. Rose is at once the happiest she has been for a long time, she has found love again after bereavement, but she is also miserable because of Phil’s behaviour. Every time Phil undermines her, her pain emanates through the screen and anyone who has ever been similarly treated will undoubtedly feel themselves transported back to that moment.
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Smit-McPhee is a revelation as Peter. Seen as an oddity and mocked by both Phil and the other ranchers, Smit-McPhee’s Peter is quiet and unassuming but behind that façade is a young man who shows both darkness and light. He constantly surprises the audience and Smit-McPhee is able to balance the ambiguous nature of Peter admirably.
As much as The Power of the Dog will impress audiences with its performances, it has the capacity to impress even more with its visually arresting cinematography and exceptional score. Filmed on location in New Zealand, the film has been shot beautifully by cinematographer Ari Wegner. Framed perfectly, there are so many stunning shots – whether they are vast shots of the breath-taking mountains or lingering close-ups of the roughness of a character’s hand.
Jonny Greenwood’s score helps bring everything together. Haunting, dark and foreboding, the score is yet another element of the film which subverts expectations – where audiences might expect sweeping string work, they instead get atonal brass.
The Power of the Dog is a film that will stay with audiences long after the credits have rolled. Ambiguous, complex and masterfully put together, The Power of the Dog could be one of the best of the year.
Drama | New Zealand/USA | 15 | Netflix Original | Dir.Jane Campion | Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons, Kirsten Dunst, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Geneviève Lemon, Alice Englert