Written by: Jane Campion
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee
Simplicity and human emotion do not make for the easiest pair. It comes with a distinct shrouding not made clear until looking far below the surface, even if it involves some pricking in the process. In a sense, Jane Campion’s newest treat for us to devour does something quite similar where it builds something that becomes hard to decipher until everything becomes explicitly clear and once it all comes together, it makes for such a satisfying experience.
Rancher brothers Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Burbank (Jesse Plemmons) make a stop at a local town on their way back home. Upon their stop, George becomes infatuated with a local innkeeper Rose (Kisten Dunst) and upon marrying her, brings Rose and her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) home, much to the disdain of Phil.
The layers operating in The Power of the Dog make for such gratifying viewing because the story never hides what it wants to be about but we get so lost in everything Campion does visually that the final impact still lands like a hammer blow. Almost like a magic trick where when examining the whole project as a whole, the machinations of her trick were left for us to see in plain sight. The journey getting there ultimately amplifies the experience and it all comes from the characterization of Phil Burbank.
One of the larger themes of this narrative lies in the ideals of toxic masculinity, the way it gets portrayed in Phil shows a sense of bravado seeped in overcompensation. This ultimately gets to the heart of where toxic masculinity comes from, a sense of trying to show out a sense of manliness, especially in the effort to upend another person. Phil, who evidently studied classical arts in university, constantly presents himself as someone who’s just like the other ranchers around him, almost daring anyone else to step up for a figurative measuring contest. This sense of unease begins to build around him, because he proves to be quite the fraud, but not to the men around him.
This then compounds with the relationship he builds with Rose’s son, Peter where it starts out in trying to humiliate the young man and then something much more intriguing. Emanating from the homoeroticism latently presented in the narrative as well as the blatant homosexual feelings happening, it tackles the idea of masculinity in such a fascinating way. Much like Brokeback Mountain, it takes a lifestyle and profession so steeped in being a “man,” which tended to lean into being heterosexual and flipping it completely. This, of course, comes together in a subtle manner until it all gets laid out right in front of you in such a brilliant manner.
The magic harbored by this feature comes from the enrapturing setting and the glorious technicals allowing us to get wrapped into this tale of torture and love. The stunning cinematography by Ari Wegner makes for so many stunning images through the use of shadows and hues. The mountain and views of Montana have never looked better and continue to suck us in. It makes the outside feel so incredibly vast while making the indoor settings so constricting and horrifying, especially when it comes to Rose’s experience with Phil. Such a stark contrast, which continually sets the mood and allows for the performances to absolutely shine.
From an acting perspective, this film provides such a wonderfully different range of performances, which all starts with Benedict Cumberbatch. Casting him in this role feels almost too perfect because Cumberbatch trying to pass off this bravado very much matches what Phil attempts to do as a character. Even so, Cumberbatch digs into the harsh exterior of this man and what he tries to hide, especially in regard to Bronco Henry. Cumberbatch really does it all thus making it his finest performance to date in the way he embodies such a hateable individual with much more going on under the surface than what one initially expected. Excellent casting and a performance to match it.
The other trio of principal cast members each serves their roles in perfect ways as well. Jesse Plemmons receives the least to do but the man hits every note perfectly from the moments of quiet affection with Rose to the ever-present discomfort he evokes whenever Phil speaks about Bronco Henry. Then you have Kirsten Dunst and Kodi Smit-McPhee absolutely dazzling as supporting figures. Dunst captures the inner anguish of a woman on the verge of a massive breakdown due to Phil’s torment. From showing out as a strong woman owning her own business to being stuck under the thumb of someone trying to make her go mad and leave runs the gamut of emotions and gives the opportunity for Dunst to show out here. Smit-McPhee takes on the very calculated and sneaky performance of portraying Peter. Something about his performance from the beginning comes with a level of mystery, but just like Cumberbatch, the layers of his work become even more discernibly brilliant the more you sit on it, especially upon a rewatch.
Coming back to grace us with her endless talent is Jane Campion and she has not lost a step in the way she tells this story. Her precision in adapting this literary tale into something visually and emotionally astonishing left me stunned on more than one occasion. Operating in the world of subtlety but also incredibly direct. I mean, the very first words of the feature truly say it all, don’t they? The emotional and psychological maze she puts the audience through here demonstrates once again why she deserves endless praise.
Multiple viewings add to the immersive experience The Power of the Dog seeks to portray and ensure the legacy of this feature will only continue to grow. An astonishing piece of work and another example of what a visual adaptation can do for a piece of literary work. I am glad to welcome back Jane Campion with open arms as she delivers unsurprisingly once again with this tortuous, cerebral, and emotional Western.