A powerful turn from Benedict Cumberbatch anchors Jane Campion’s prairie-set period drama

The Power of the Dog

Source: Netflix

‘The Power of the Dog’

Dir. Jane Campion. Australia/UK/Canada/New Zealand. 2021. 128 mins.

Jane Campion goes full American Gothic with a 1920s-set story that feels like an old-school Western filtered through the dark dramatic mindset of a William Faulkner. In fact, Campion has adapted The Power Of The Dog from a 1967 American novel by Thomas Savage, recently rediscovered and certainly due for a further surge of interest once this stark high-plains drama hits theatres in November, and Netflix the following month. Campion followers will be fascinated to see her adopting a big-country landscape canvas, as well as further pursuing some of her key interests, notably dysfunctional family dynamics, the vagaries of sexual desire and the malaises of the male ego – all themes that emerged fascinatingly in the two seasons of her recent TV drama Top Of The Lake. The latter theme is personified here by an intense, and tantalisingly nuanced performance by Benedict Cumberbatch, whose range expands ever more intriguingly, and here produces one of his most troubling characterisations to date.

Campion’s most thoroughly conceived, consistently involving drama for years

The setting is Montana in 1925, where wealthy cattle-owning brothers Phil and George Burbank preside over an all-male community of cowhands – domestic staff excepted - on their remote ranch, overlooked by a range of hills. Quiet, ruminative George (Jesse Plemons) is a staid but tender type. He’s ridden roughshod over by the smarter, college-educated Phil (Cumberbatch), who, despite his classics degree, has opted for a weatherbeaten life on the range, castrating bulls with his bare hands, weaving ropes from cowhide, refusing to wash, and generally making a point of anything that proves him to be a rugged son of the plains.

This taciturn but always sharp-tongued man, in other words, seems pathologically to have to prove his maleness to the world – easily taking affront when he encounters anything that might challenge it. That’s why he instantly loathes – and encourages his cowboys to jeer at – Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), the sensitive, intellectual son of widow Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), who runs an eating house at a nearby town. Sighting the paper flowers handmade by aspiring medic Peter, Phil identifies him as an enemy to be humiliated – but is horrified when George announces that he’s marrying the boy’s mother.

Jealous at having his fraternal closeness with George interrupted, and furious at having his territory invaded when Rose moves to the brothers’ cavernous pile of a home, Phil almost instinctively finds ways to make her life a misery – above all, though psychological warfare such as unsettling her already nervous piano playing. Things get worse when Peter joins his mother, who has quickly turned to drink to ease her unhappy solitude. Eventually one of these characters will turn out to be playing a long, cunning game in the domestic war of attrition.

Campion’s adaptation is undeniably faithful to the essence of the novel, although she strips out certain key episodes and arguably over-emphasises other aspects. Notably, she heavily underlines the precise nature of Phil’s reverence for a bygone cowhand who was his adored mentor. This is perhaps a not entirely necessary move, though, since the key theme of repressed homosexuality in macho societies – and a pathological intensity to the cowboy cult of maleness - is more than clearly visible between the story’s lines.

Magnificently shot by Ari Wegner (Lady Macbeth, In Fabric, True History Of The Kelly Gang), the film makes the most of its humanity-dwarfing landscapes (equally inhospitable in heat and snow) with New Zealand’s South Island an imposing stand-in for Montana. The landscapes counterpoint the vast but claustrophobic interiors of the Burbank house, its dark wooded surfaces seemingly untouched in generations, and disturbed less by inhabitants’ presence than by the sheaves of dust-choked sunlight that shoot through its windows.

Light is used with particular brilliance in those sequences, especially at the start, when Cumberbatch’s Phil is lit from behind, his gestures and riderly gait marking out the shifting of his moods and humours even when he says nothing. Body language is something that Campion pays special attention to here, especially in the gangling, coltish awkwardness of Smit-McPhee’s Peter and the gentle, stiff reticence of Plemons’s George.

All four leads are excellent, erstwhile ingenue Dunst continuing her current exploration into more mature, vulnerable female characters, while Plemons can do finely-tuned man-child gaucheness like few other American actors of his generation. Inevitably, it’s Cumberbatch who makes the most impression, partly because the atmospheric darkness, framing Phil’s suspicious looks and sharp micro-glances of contempt, keep us guessing exactly what’s on this character’s mind. Cameo support includes Keith Carradine, Frances Conroy, fast-rising Thomasin McKenzie (also in Venice with Last Night In Soho) and long-serving Campion regular Genevieve Lemon.

A flaw of the film is perhaps that Campion’s adaptation softens Phil’s character a little too much, makes him that bit more accessibly vulnerable than the truly disturbed figure of the original –a justifiable enough decision, although its effect somewhat takes the sting out of what is essentially a twist ending, and one that here feels just a touch bathetic. 

Nevertheless, if The Power Of The Dog isn’t the absolute killer coup that Campionites might have hoped, this is her most thoroughly conceived, consistently involving drama for years: taken all in all, pretty much the full visual, dramatic and, indeed sonic package. Composer Jonny Greenwood adds another audacious credit to his CV, with a string-dominated score punctuated by chilling horns and, at one point, manically nervy high notes on the piano, channeling certain 20th-century composers (Charles Ives, Bartok, Messaien, Shostakovich) in a way that ought to feel at odds with the wild prairie setting, but has a spareness that’s absolutely at one with it.

Production companies: See-Saw Films, Bad Girl Creek, Max Films, Cross City Films, BBC Film, Brightstar

International sales: Netflix, cmason@netflix.com

Producers: Jane Campion, Tanya Seghatchian, Emile Sherman, Iain Canning, Roger Frappier

Screenplay: Jane Campion, based on the novel by Thomas Savage

Cinematography: Ari Wegner

Editor: Peter Sciberras

Production design: Grant Major

Music: Jonny Greenwood

Main cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee