It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic saw the delay of many films which has resulted in a huge amount of quality films being released this year. One such film to suffer from pandemic delays is Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog which is her first feature film in 12 years since 2009’s Bright Star. Based on the novel of the same name by Thomas Savage, The Power of the Dog follows the lives of two brothers, Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Burbank (Jesse Plemons) who own a family ranch and how their lives change when George falls in love with – and quickly marries – Rose (Kirsten Dunst), a widow whose former husband died of suicide. In true Campion style, the film provides deep characterisation, stunning scenery, and a script that is so beautifully written and paced that you feel completely immersed in the film and its time period.
Written and directed by Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog has proven to be a huge hit at festivals and it’s easy to see why. The film feels authentically Western in its slow pacing with her writing and directing giving the film plenty of chance to breathe. The way Campion utilises natural light in her film brings a rawness that allows the landscape to show off its natural beauty without using any filters or techniques. Equally, Campion’s ability to make the audience feel claustrophobic in the open space is so clever such as the scene when Phil and Peter are on their travels through the hills. What is so wonderful about Campion’s filmmaking is that she has such an intricate knowledge of space and how to make use of the space. In one scene, we see George and Rose driving back to the ranch after dropping Peter off at school and they are surrounded by rolling hills which seems to go on for miles; however, what was once an open space is gradually zoomed into George and Rose as they try to dance and it suddenly feels as though the space has become much smaller. Unsurprisingly, the film has brought Campion much acclaim for her directing and she even won the Silver Bear at this year’s Venice Film Festival.
Leading the film is Benedict Cumberbatch as Phil Burbank in what is arguably his best performance to date. To say that Phil is a deeply complex character is an understatement. He is a character plagued by his past as he constantly refers to his late mentor – and lover – Bronco Henry, who has since passed away. The result of which is a character that internalises who he is and replaces it with toxic masculinity, feigning power and confidence through brutality and strength. Phil’s leadership and charisma is hard to miss as he makes his presence known no matter where he is. Cumberbatch is captivating in a role that may seem mismatched at first but his dedication and relentlessness allows us to him in an entirely new light. He has become a firm favourite for the Best Actor awards this coming awards season and it is easy to see why. Even if he doesn’t win, he will definitely earn nominations in what is a performance of a lifetime.
Playing Phil’s brother, George, is Jesse Plemons and the two characters couldn’t be more different. Where Phil is overly observant to a fault, George is oblivious although his heart is in the right place. Unable to see his wife suffering or catering to her needs, George tries to force her into a societal position that she doesn’t feel comfortable with. This isn’t out of malice or bullying but because he does what he believes is expected of him. Plemons is always great no matter what role he does and it’s a treat to see him in a bigger role. The scene where George confronts Phil about the latter’s treatment of Rose is ridiculously intense and this is because Plemons and Cumberbatch manage to bring an authenticity to their roles that feels genuine and brotherly. Kirsten Dunst plays Rose, a woman who recently lost her husband to suicide and is struggling to run the family restaurant. She marries George shortly after meeting him but soon finds that her brother-in-law, Phil, does not approve of their marriage, believing her to be a gold digger. Dunst is one of a few women in the film but her presence is duly noted and she commands each scene she is in, especially as her character delves into alcoholism. The lack of female roles is completely on purpose as the film is showing what happens when an environment is dominated by men and, specifically, toxic masculinity. Rose’s background is completely different to Phil’s entirely and it is these differences that cause friction between them. The scene in which Rose practices on the piano and eventually finds herself in competition with Phil’s banjo playing is somehow terrifying and comedic at the same time. Dunst’s performance in this scene is brilliant as we feel the fear in the character and her emotional struggle as she cannot finish her piece.
Another performance in this film that has been receiving a lot of attention is Kodi Smit-McPhee’s turn as Rose’s son, Peter. The first time we see Peter, he is delicately cutting pieces of paper which are then shaped to make paper flowers which he then takes to his father’s grave. From his sensitive nature to his crisp and neat appearance, it is clear that there is something that sets Peter apart from the other men in the area. This is pointed out during his first encounter with Phil and the rest of the ranchers as Phil makes fun of Peter’s flowers and the way he dresses and carries himself. Assuming that he is homosexual, Phil and the other men hurl homophobic insults at Peter wherever he goes and bully him relentlessly; however, Peter appears indifferent to their insults and carries on with his research to become a medical doctor. Smit-McPhee’s performance is the perfect opposition to Phil. Where Cumberbatch’s performance is loud and commanding, Smit-McPhee’s is much quiet and subtle while still grabbing the audience’s attention. The climactic scene between Phil and Peter in the barn is incredibly intense and has the audience at the edge of their seat and this is due to Cumberbatch and Smit-McPhee’s flawless chemistry.
One of the many highlights in this film is the beautiful score which is composed by Johnny Greenwood. What makes Greenwood one of the best composers working today is the huge range of films that he has worked on. Whether it is a period drama such as The Master or a thriller such as You Were Never Really Here, Greenwood always knocks it out off the park. He has delved into the Western genre before with his game-changing score for There Will Be Blood and yet somehow, he manages to create a completely new and different sound for the music in this film. Featuring hints of Western and thriller, Greenwood integrates his signature sounds with atmospheric tones that work seamlessly with the film. The music never overwhelms the film itself and yet manages to stand out and elevate the mood of the scene. Hopefully we will see Greenwood receive another Academy Award nomination for his work and maybe even a win.
The Power of the Dog was a film worth waiting for and more. Hopefully, it will see a lot of recognition come awards season thanks to the breath-taking direction, stellar script and impeccable performances, especially by Cumberbatch. Campion has come back with a bang and here’s hoping she doesn’t wait as long before making her next feature.
The Power of the Dog is showing at this year’s London Film Festival!