Jane Campion returns to the film world after the excellent Top of The Lake TV series with her first feature since 2009’s Bright Star. Once again, her lyrical eye runs throughout a tale of toxic masculinity and repression and a lingering sense of melancholy for The Power of the Dog. Benedict Cumberbatch is Phil Burbank, an apparently rough, tough no-nonsense rancher in 1925. His way of seeing the world is under threat, it seems; one that is changing around him. His more with-the-times younger brother George (played by Jesse Plemons), is constantly bullied by Cumberbatch, who calls him ‘Fatso’ and teases for his more modern, sensitive approach.
Plemons also takes on a wife, Rose, played by the excellent Kirsten Dunst, and her son Peter, played by an eerie Kodi Smit-Mcphee. Her husband had killed himself and now she runs a restaurant/boarding house while dealing with demons of her own. Her son is a gangly, otherworldly boy who makes flowers out of paper and devours knowledge – a thin effete figure amidst the muscly, testosterone-fuelled cowboys that taunt him. Cumberbatch initially hates them both, particularly Dunst, taunting her with banjo playing and cutting words. The Power of Dog‘s complexities lies in the interplay between all these characters.
Cumberbatch idolizes a dead cowboy, Bronco, who showed him the ropes in many things it subtly seems; Plemons is a restrained ball of ineffectual ambition, Dunst is struggling with her own alcoholism fuelled in trauma, and McPhee is superbly alien and confident, seemingly knowing that his world is coming and the way of the cowboy is becoming outmoded. There is much economically said about repressed sexuality and what it means to be a man: cowboys wrestle nude with each other whilst calling Mcphee a ‘nancy boy’. There is simmering tension throughout, a scene where Dunst is forced to play the piano is deeply uncomfortable as we watch her anxiety build under Cumberbatch and her expectant husband’s gaze, as she is forced into a role she does not want.
A slow-burn drama that leaves much to muse upon, Campion couples epic landscapes with uncomfortable, empathetic intimacy.
Dir: Jane Campion (12A) (122 mins)
The Power of the Dog is streaming on Netflix now
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