Based on the novel by Thomas Savage, The Power of the Dog is the story of a rancher in 1920s Montana whose thirst for power and control is confronted by the arrival of his younger brother’s new wife and her sensitive son. Written for the screen and directed by Jane Campion, the film is an exploration of a man trying to instill his will and ideals on the new people in his family including his nephew whom he feels is challenging his tough persona. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Thomasin McKenzie, Genevieve Lemon, Keith Carradine, and Frances Conroy. The Power of the Dog is a riveting and intoxicating film from Jane Campion.
Set in 1925 Montana, the film revolves around a rancher whose brother marries a local restauranteur whose son is known for acting a bit effeminate and talk with a bit of a lisp as he becomes uncomfortable with their presence as he becomes intimidating towards them. It is a film that explores a world where men and women have their place in the world but there is this sense of change where the definition of what men and women are begin to blur. Jane Campion’s screenplay is broken into a few chapters as it play into the relationship between the Burbank brothers in Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his younger brother George (Jesse Plemons) as the latter is an educated while the former prefers to maintain his lifestyle tending to the ranch as he has no interested in bathing nor show any kind of weakness. During a cattle drive where they stop at a nearby town at a restaurant run by Rose (Kirsten Dunst) whose son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a waiter where his lanky and effeminate presentation amuses Phil who would later mock Peter.
The first act is about the relationship between the brothers as well as George’s yearning to marry Rose as he would do so much to Phil’s annoyance as her presence would cause tension just as Rose is trying to bring a few changes as well as invite Phil and George’s parents and the governor (Keith Carradine) and his wife (Alison Bruce) for a dinner. The second act is about Peter’s arrival to the ranch following his time in college where he’s studying medicine and surgery where he tries to stay away from Phil and his ranchers but also makes a discovery about Phil that would change their relationship in the film’s second half. It is where this theme of masculinity come into play as Phil would become open to show Peter the ideas of being a rancher that Peter takes great interest in. Yet, Rose becomes uneasy about it as she turns to alcohol to cope as she would do something that only anger both Phil and Peter.
Campion’s direction is definitely intoxicating for the presentation she creates as it is set in the American West that is Montana though it is shot on the Maniototo plains in the Central Otago region in New Zealand with several interiors shot on sound stages in Auckland. Campion’s direction is often filled with gazing wide shots of these locations where they are major characters in the film as it play into this world that is untouched by modern society which suits Phil and the world he cares about. Campion would also use medium shots and close-ups to get a look into some of the attention to detail in the locations including a small flower in the field or something is symbolic. Most notably in a shrine for Phil’s mentor named Bronco Henry as he would tell stories about his exploits as it serves as this idea of what Phil wants to maintain with his cowhands who are also this embodiment of intense masculinity. Even as there is that moment where Phil notices some flowers made out of paper that Peter had created and burns it up as a form of intimidation and mocking.
There are also these shots that play into the tension between Rose and Phil such as a scene of the latter trying to play a piano piece with Phil on the floor above play that same piece with his banjo as a form of intimidation. Campion also play up the tension during a key scene where Phil and his cowhands are on the river with Phil at another location in the forest by himself where Peter makes this major discovery. This revelation for the second half is where Phil realizes that he and Peter are a lot alike in the way they see things but also that Peter is a lot stronger than both Phil and Rose would believe as Peter is fascinated by the idea of what it’s like to be a cowboy. For Rose, it’s a terrifying idea as she becomes more troubled and fearful as it adds some chaos in the film’s third act. It is Peter’s actions in the third act in what he’s learned from Phil is key to this unexpected bond between these two men who don’t feel like they belong in the modern world despite the things that Peter is studying yet he’s more intrigued by a world that is much simpler and uncompromising. Overall, Campion crafts a ravishing yet captivating film about a tough rancher’s encounter with his new sister-in-law and her effeminate son.
Cinematographer Ari Wegner does incredible work with the film’s cinematography as its emphasis on natural lighting for many of the exteriors including some scenes in the forests are just gorgeous to watch while many of the nighttime interior scenes are used with available light to help set a mood. Editor Peter Sciberras does excellent work with the editing as it is largely straightforward with some rhythmic cuts to play into the drama as well as some of the dramatic tension that occurs within the film. Production designer Grant Major, with supervising art director Mark Robins plus set decorators Gareth Edwards and Amber Richards, does amazing work with the look of the ranch and its interiors with how spacious the dining room is as well as Phil’s room that he shared with George and some of the exteriors including the stable where Phil keeps a lot of Bronco Henry’s possessions. Costume designer Kirsty Cameron does fantastic work with the costumes from the golden dress Rose wears to a dinner with the governor and others to the more rough-clothing and chaps that Phil and his cowhands wear.
Hair and makeup designer Noriko Watanabe does terrific work with the look of the characters from the dirty look of Phil as well as the hairstyle of the women during those times. Special effects supervisor Brendan Durey and visual effects supervisor Jason Hawkins do nice work with some of the effects as it relates to some of the horse riding and a few bits of set dressing for some scenes. Sound editor Robert Mackenzie and sound designer Dave Whitehead do brilliant work with the sound in the way cows and horses sound from afar as well as other sparse moments including the comb that Peter carries along with musical instruments as it is a highlight of the film. The film’s music by Jonny Greenwood is phenomenal as its usage of discordant strings, eerie piano pieces, and lush orchestral string pieces add to the drama as it is a major highlight of the film while music supervisor Andrew Kotatko bring in a few classical and folk pieces that are performed in the film.
The casting by Nikki Barrett, Tina Cleary, Carmen Cuba, and Nina Gold is remarkable as it feature some notable small roles from Alice Englert as a young hooker who dances with a cowhand, Adam Beach as a Native American that wants to buy one of Phil’s rawhide, Maeson Stone Skuccedal as the Native American’s son, Sean Keenan and George Mason as a couple of Phil’s cowhands, Alice Bruce as the governor’s wife who is eager to meet Phil, Keith Carradine as the governor who is fascinated by Phil’s workmanship, Peter Carroll and Frances Conroy as Phil and George’s parents who are eager to see Rose in welcoming her to the family, Genevieve Lemon as the housekeeper Mrs. Lewis who kind of runs the ranch while telling Rose on a few house rules, and Thomasin McKenzie in a fantastic small role as the young maid Lola who works at the house and help Rose in a few things. Jesse Plemons is marvelous as George Burbank as Phil’s younger brother who is a more educated and kinder person than Phil as he would marry Rose as a way to have his own life instead of being intimidated by his brother.
Kirsten Dunst is incredible as Rose Gordon as a restauranteur who is intimidated by Phil as she is troubled by his presence that drives her to drink while becomes protective of Peter when he starts to befriend Phil where she does something that would upset them both. Kodi Smit-McPhee is phenomenal as Peter Gordon as a young man who has this effeminate presentation to him in the fact that he’s also very skinny yet Smit-McPhee makes Peter a far more intriguing individual who would do things that Rose would not approve of but Phil might’ve as well as show that he’s willing to learn as it play into his own ideas of life lessons. Finally, there’s Benedict Cumberbatch in a magnificent performance as Phil Burbank as a rancher who is more content with doing work with the ranch and living a rough and tumble lifestyle as he is wary at Rose believing she is being disruptive but takes a liking towards Peter in the film’s second half as there is this ambiguity and complexity to Cumberbatch’s performance that can be chilling but also has this air of sensitivity that is definitely a career-defining performance for Cumberbatch.
The Power of the Dog is an outstanding film from Jane Campion that features phenomenal performances from Benedict Cumberbatch, Kodi Smit-McPhee, and Kirsten Dunst. Along with its ensemble cast, gorgeous locations, ravishing visuals, Jonny Greenwood’s unsettling score, a chilling soundtrack, and its themes on masculinity in an ever-changing world. It is a film that doesn’t play by the conventions of what it means to be a man or how to be one in a world that is removed from conventional society but rather to take an identity and own it no matter how hard society can hit. In the end, The Power of the Dog is a tremendous film from Jane Campion.
Jane Campion Films: Sweetie - An Angel at My Table - The Piano - The Portrait of a Lady - Holy Smoke! - In the Cut - Bright Star - Top of the Lake (Season 1) - (Top of the Lake-China Girl) – The Auteurs #25: Jane Campion
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