Jane Campion is back with The Power of the Dog, a hard-hearted yet beautiful study of toxic masculinity that carefully crafts every facet and has Benedict Cumberbatch’s finest performance to date.
Most of Campion’s work can be intricate or detail-oriented, but it’s primarily unique and tantalizing in its favor. It is all about the atmosphere she concocts with her direction, and every little trifle that factors its way onto the screen has its purpose. Of course, not every film she does is excellent nor perfect, but the element of meticulousness is always present. Now, the New Zealand auteur makes her return to filmmaking after 12-years with one of the most complex films of the year, The Power of the Dog.
Set in Montana in the 1920s, George (Jesse Plemons) and Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) Burbank are brothers who run a successful ranch. One day, their relationship sours once George marries Rose (Kirsten Dunst), a local widow. When she arrives with her naive son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Phil treats them with menacing looks, hurtful insults, and macho quips, only to hide later in the mudded waters of self-repression as a barrier from reality.
It all centers around Phil Burbank, who spreads fear amongst the people once he enters a room. He embodies masculinity overcome by the pressure of conforming to the role nature has reinforced. Then there’s Peter, the opposite of Phil, a young man who gets picked on but has some tricks up his sleeves. A tale of two brothers is left behind to tell a more interesting one: a battle of wits. As the story goes along, we see that one is vulnerable on the inside and the other on the outside. Everything is about to change in the Burbank ranch.
You could see it as a brain versus brawn scenario, albeit we know that Phil is a person who can’t be fooled. It is all about that mentality of spreading fear through angst and that sentimentality of what would happen if they knew the real you. But, there is more to The Power of the Dog than meets the eye; the secret is in the details. “Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog.” The last sentence that spills the truth; the one that quenches the thirst for cognizance.
The performances are what drive this callous western to its razor-sharp ending so smoothly. Cumberbatch nails his role as the fear-inducing rancher not only by the way he speaks, but his eyes, posture, and demeanor. His glance is like a mean bite, while his conduct is virulent. Just by hearing the spurs on his boots or the creaking of him walking down the stairs, even the brightest of souls darken. In the final stretches of the spiel, we get a coup d’œil that it might be only just a deeply touted sublimation.
In the end, Campion makes everything excel, revealing that she is indeed a master at the craft; her return is worthy of praise. She is the perfect choice to tell such a tale of how weakness can be the silent killer. The Power of the Dog is more than what it succumbs to when you look at it with a mere glance; its self-denial versus desire, neglecting the past you once lived through, and how hiding your true self one day might kill you on the inside. Campion does what she does best and delivers a film sharp as a blade that hides beneath a beautiful location, only to cut deeper when you least expect it.