Director: Jane Campion
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Thomasin McKenzie
Genre: Western drama
Country / Language: New Zealand, Australia, USA, UK, Canada / English
Duration: 2 hr 6 min
Release date: December 1, 2021 (India)
‘The Power of the Dog’ is the latest film to come out during the awards season and it is destined to be heavily nominated for all the major categories. It is also another success for Netflix which distributes this film. Because it is simply beautiful, emotionally vibrant and heartbreaking, usually all at once.
The film is adapted from the 1967 novel by Thomas Savage and follows the story of four distinct people in 1925 Montana, USA. Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a charismatic but aggressive rancher who runs a farm with his brother George (Jesse Plemons).
The two brothers’ lives turn upside down when George decides to marry the widow Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), much to Phil’s chagrin. Almost immediately, Rose and her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) move into the Burbank home which further enrages Phil. Psychological war ensues.
The cast is splendid and everyone does their bit. As the saying goes: everyone helped with the class project. But a special mention for Benedict Cumberbatch (‘Doctor Strange’, ’12 Years A Slave’) is essential because the actor fascinatingly inhabits the skin of Phil and takes him through various stages of emotions in a way most actors could not do. Phil isn’t just a macho cowboy. Nor is he a simply cruel brother-in-law.
Cumberbatch unfolds and reveals many layers to his character like an onion. Phil comes from nobility but shuns it like a pest, preferring to be with his workers at the ranch and work in dirt with his bare hands. We are enthralled to see Phil be so vulnerable in some moments and so intimidating in the next.
There is a scene midway through the film where Phil sprawls half-naked under the sun in a garden, his own secret world. In this wordless scene, he caresses himself with a handkerchief as we watch on with awe. This scene, which is at least five minutes long, set to Jonny Greenwood’s score is mesmerizing to watch.
Another beautiful presence in this drama is Kodi Smit-McPhee’s, Peter Gordon. The opening scene for young Peter sees him make flowers out of colour paper. The radiant lighting highlights his porcelain skin and delicate features, making him resemble a model from a Caravaggio painting. He is everything Phil is not. Peter is sensitive and brought to tears with Phil’s bullying. He is lanky with bony, long fingers.
He is often dressed in all-white and avoids the muddy horses and rugged cowboys at the ranch. But just like Cumberbatch, Smit-McPhee knows how to play Peter as a multi-dimensional, layered character. He isn’t just some fragile young boy. In fact, we see two different sides to all the four prime characters in this drama.
As the formerly widowed Rose Gordon, Kirsten Dunst is graceful and soft – much like Peter. Phil’s rejection of Rose as his sister-in-law causes the fragile wife to relapse into her drinking habit. At one moment, she is strong and assured as she manages her restaurant with strength. And at another moment, she is crumbling and ill.
Dunst is at home with the latter part, almost belonging in the “middle-aged actors playing weepy mothers” category with her contemporaries Nicole Kidman and Naomi Watts. Dunst is known for playing deeply unhappy women such as in ‘The Beguiled’ (2017), ‘Melancholia’ (2011), and ‘The Virgin Suicides’ (1999), and she excels here too.
Jesse Plemons (‘Black Mirror’) plays Phil’s brother and Rose’s husband, George Burbank. He is a foil to Phil: with his remaining connection with mobility, good rapport with his parents, well-dressed persona and his gentlemanly manners, he is far more in sync with the real world than the escapist Phil. George is a man who made mistakes in the past but wants to do right this time. But it’s difficult as his brother’s actions keep pulling him back into the ranch.
There’s also a delightful, but brief, appearance from Thomasin McKenzie, the spiteful young actor who enamoured us in ‘Last Night In Soho’ back in October.
This brilliant cast is directed with expertise by the New Zealand filmmaker Jane Campion. Campion was nominated for Best Director at the Academy Awards back in 1994 with her romantic drama ‘The Piano’. And she is back now with an equally great, if not greater, period film. Campion has a taste for focusing on the actors’ subtle glances and nuanced, suggestive acting.
Her films tend to have actors mask their emotions (whether love, desire, intrigue or hatred) and then have the masks peeled off slowly. Fun fact: there’s a ‘Piano’ reference with a shot in ‘Power of the Dog’ where Rose’s piano is carried by hurly-burly men through wet mud in order for it to be placed inside the house.
A special mention must go to the small crew under cinematographer Ari Wegner and production designer Grant Major who in the limited time provided to them were able to convert New Zealand and its breathtaking mountain view into an American ranch from 1925.
Another brilliant artist involved is Jonny Greenwood, an English musician whose score in this film charges every scene with tension, fear, eroticism or deep melancholy. He impressed us most recently with his compositions in last month’s ‘Spencer’ whose score was probably its most excellent aspect.
But the most intriguing part of this film is the ever-shifting dynamics between the characters. Does Phil plan to be even crueller to Peter or is Peter the one with a trick up his sleeve? Is Rose the controlling mother figure to her son or is her son the man pulling the strings? Is George really the noble gentleman that Rose should trust or is the husband disappointingly inept at protecting her?
Some may find the film uneventful and even boring. When we hear of westerns, we picture action sequences. Such as horse chases, train robberies, kidnappings and rescues, white Americans warring with the Natives. We see none of that here.
Although dressed as a Western, when stripped down to its essentials ‘The Power of the Dog’ is very much like ‘The Piano’. It is a Gothic drama (it is situated within the house and the characters are haunted by memories of dead loved ones) with a thinly veiled eroticism (certain revelations occur that will make you confront your understanding of Phil’s character).
There is, perhaps, even a chance of romance flickering like a candle that threatens to tear apart a family. We do not expect the film to take such a passionately emotional turn where light is shredded on the characters’ desires, longing, self-denial and loneliness.
The ending of The Power of the Dog might leave some viewers heartbroken and tearing up. And make one reminisce about time which has passed and past regrets. Some might find the film slow-paced. It can certainly feel too quiet at times and the camera often lingers on
certain faces, hands, cigarettes, ropes and strings for too long. But the director is trying to tell us something. Perhaps it is best to let yourself go and let Jane Campion take you on an audio-visual journey on her own terms with this breathtakingly gorgeous film.
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