For her third feature film, The Piano, Jane Campion became the first female filmmaker to win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, for very good reason. With The Power of the Dog being her first feature film in over a decade, it is more than just a triumphant return to the screen for her. Throughout her career, Campion has been known for making films that delve into the psychology that fuels desire, spanning many periods of time – but with The Power of the Dog comes one of her most beautiful and highly sensual efforts to date. It’s a statement that I think can only ever be put lightly, but in The Power of the Dog, you’re seeing the more externalized emotions coming forth in what would be one of her most beautiful films to date.
Based on the novel of the same name by Thomas Savage, The Power of the Dog stars Benedict Cumberbatch as the highly temperamental and volatile rancher Phil Burbank. Phil is a highly meticulous rancher, often taking a position of power over others – sometimes to the point of inspiring fear. His younger brother, George (Jesse Plemons), isn’t much the same, being more soft-spoken and kindhearted. He goes on to marry the widowed Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), after her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) becomes the subject of mockery from Phil and his fellow cowhands, later prompting Phil to look back at his relationship with a new family coming into his house.
Jane Campion’s previous films notably featured female leads and placed a greater emphasis on their points of view with regards to desire, but The Power of the Dog differs from her past work in that it is more explicitly about masculinity. This is perhaps most apparent in how she frames the human body, whether clothed or unclothed, to explore the vulnerability behind a supposed “tough guy” image that one can make for themselves. In doing so, what Campion does is bring out a career best performance from Benedict Cumberbatch, who isn’t the sort of actor that I could imagine taking on a role in a film like this, but it’s also typical of Campion to have her featuring many actors beautifully playing against type.
In addition to that, Campion’s work also boasts some beautiful landscape photography – although set in the United States she can truly make New Zealand look absolutely stunning on camera. But I also think as much as the beautiful landscapes as shot by Ari Wegner look as gorgeous as they can ever be, her work also stretches itself into the more intimate moments which are about as rugged as the western landscapes where the film is set. For Campion’s film, this is crucial towards the formation of the internalized psychological structuring of The Power of the Dog, but it also goes to speak for the absolute mastery in her craft both on and off the screen.
What I think works best in The Power of the Dog is best stated by its subtlety both in front of and behind the camera. First clear enough in its distinctive chapter breaks, but also in how Jane Campion shows a series of images that direct the audience’s attention in one way – yet provides a payoff that only a masterful storyteller can pull off. As expected, this is far more than what happens within the eyes of Jane Campion, who utilizes the film’s unique chapter breaks to guide her own viewers not through different phases of life or merely place one character in focus over the other, but to put at the center another layer of characters whom we think we know at first: creating a very layered psychological drama, but not without events that slowly foreshadow events to come later.
It was an interesting choice to have Benedict Cumberbatch in the role of the tough, dedicated, and charismatic rancher Phil Burbank – considering this type of character is very different from what would be expected of him to play. Nonetheless, his casting as Burbank is one of many strokes of genius in Campion’s film, because of the way that Cumberbatch embodies the highly masculine image that this character demands. The genius of Cumberbatch’s performance is one that drives from how much he shows on the outside and then on the inside. In turn, what we get is a beautifully layered character and breakdown of masculinity, one that’s always so compelling, tragic, and beautiful, but never letting go of how complex a figure like Phil truly is.
Much as Cumberbatch has been talked about for his performance, his co-stars are no less fantastic. Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst, fittingly playing a married couple in here, with Dunst showcasing a wonderfully understated feeling of torment while under Phil’s influence, and Plemons being so passive and kind, always looking for the best in the people around him. But aside from Cumberbatch, the real star of the show is none other than Kodi Smit-McPhee, who has maybe the single most deceptive role in the whole film. This isn’t something that I put lightly but seeing how he is introduced in the film’s first chapter, versus how he grows later in the film, makes him the perfect equal to Cumberbatch’s impulsive Phil – in arguably what will be remembered as a career best for the young actor.
The great thing about The Power of the Dog is the fact that what Jane Campion has crafted is not your usual western but one that feels as understated on the inside as it can be rugged, yet beautiful on the outside. In moments of grand visual beauty, we still see pieces of fragility perhaps best stated by how the characters interact with one another. But all throughout, the way it coalesces creates what will arguably go down as one of the most beautiful feature films made this entire decade, and another career high for Campion. If this isn’t one of the best and most beautiful films to have come out in the entire year, I certainly don’t know what will be.
Watch the trailer for the film right here.
All images via Netflix.
Directed by Jane Campion
Screenplay by Jane Campion, based on the novel by Thomas Savage
Produced by Emile Sherman, Iain Canning, Roger Frappier, Jane Campion, Tanya Seghatchian
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons, Kirsten Dunst, Kodi Smit-McPhee
Release Date: December 1, 2021 (Netflix)
Running Time: 126 minutes