Adapting American author Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel of the same name for the big screen, Kiwi writer-director Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog is a meditative yet punishing, slow-burning exploration of man’s animal instincts. Montana, 1925. Sprawling and loosely episodic, the film maintains a chaptered structure, and we meet the brothers Burbank, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons), as they prepare for a cattle drive.
As far from being two peas in a pod as could be imagined, the former is surly, unkind to the point of tyranny, reeks and refuses to bathe; the latter is softly spoken, considered and pensive, appearing in a crisp white shirt, clean shaven, hair slicked back. Much has gone before, much is left unsaid between the men, and Campion’s script is purposefully sparse on backstory. With a real swagger and exaggerated machismo, the early stages suggest that Cumberbatch might be over-reaching or trying a little too hard to shed the waistcoats and quirkiness of former roles for this gruff, bullying rancher.
“Ain’t them puuurrrdy,” he drawls, upon arrival at a rest stop; ruthlessly mocking paper flowers that a young man, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), has made to bring colour to his mother’s (Kirsten Dunst) restaurant. Recently widowed, Mrs. Gordon draws emotional support and a touch on the shoulder from George. Soon on first name terms, and then married, the new family return to the Burbank ranch to a less than warm welcome. What then ensues is a battle of wills, of psychological intimidation and control, of secrets and ulterior motives. Campion’s latest film is a slow march, punctuated with sporadic incident – flashpoints which have all the more impact for their infrequency and unpredictability. It’s not necessarily that there are red herrings or purposeful misdirection, but more a great deal that is left unclear; alluded to, left hanging in the air, swept under dusty carpets.
Jonny Greenwood, who along with Pablo Larraín’s Spencer is having a particularly strong showing at LFF, has crafted another sublime score. Alternately propelling and scraping at the emotional peaks and troughs of the narrative, he strikes the right notes of harmony and discord with rhythm that soars and falters, elevating Campion’s visual storytelling to ever higher realms. Scattering the narrative breadcrumbs sparingly, the director leaves ample slack on the rope as she leads us down the garden path – or is it more a perilous mountain trail? And though there are stunning vistas of the mountains that envelope the vast ranch – New Zealand’s Central Otago substituting for rural Montana – much of the film occurs in close-up.
A Western that defies genre, it has no shoot-out or great ‘us vs them’ battle, and strays only occasionally a short distance from its central homestead. The Power of the Dog spreads further and wider, but through time and consciousness, not the great expanses of barren landscape. Aggression, verbal and physical, is a defence mechanism and unresolved conflict exists internally, not across sweeping plains. As Cumberbatch’s nuanced, magnetic performance develops, it becomes apparent that there is a role within a role here.
He’s playing to the crowd, showing his men who’s boss, that anything other than toughness and castrating cows with your bare hands makes you weak, or a “Nancy.” He openly mocks the effete Peter, humiliating him in public. But why? Cinematographer Ari Wegner gives us access that Phil’s crew do not see: doubt, longing, buried memories and desire flicker in desperate eyes. Counter Phil’s hyper-masculinity and showy bravado with George, terse, polite, altruistic, domesticated. As is so often the case, Plemons does a great deal with the limited screen time he is offered, his character featuring less in the second half. A mountain top dance lesson with his new bride brings a tear to the eye, demonstrating just what a very fine actor he is. Dunst, too, effectively portrays Rose as a wounded, hounded animal; driven by maternal survivalist instinct in a harsh land, and harsher home environment.
However, it is Smit-McPhee’s haunting turn that really lingers. After appearing in John Maclean’s excellent 2015 film Slow West, the young actor again appears completely at ease as a young man ill-at-ease in this frontier setting. A being out of time and place, much is hidden behind his dark eyes and awkward demeanour. Striking visual metaphors may be as blunt as stakes in the hard ground, as brutal as rusty, bloodied blades or as free-flowing and poetic as waterways and the wind through tall blades of grass, but Campion’s direction is measured, patient and captivating. We frequently ask what is happening, where is this leading, how can this ever-souring situation be resolved? Rest assured that you are in safe hands with a filmmaker who has once again achieved something quite extraordinary.
Visit the BFI London Film Festival page to delve deeper into the wealth of films on show this year.
Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63