“Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog.”Psalm 22:20
Jane Campion‘s enigmatic, dense, endlessly surprising The Power Of The Dog (2021), based on the eponymous 1967 novel by Thomas Savage, requires time to absorb and digest, and in that very quality it exhibits its excellence and extraordinary depth.
Set in 1925, amidst the rugged landscape of Montana, USA, yet shot in New Zealand, from where Campion hails, it is both of a time and place, but also removed from them, equally – a potent mix of psychogeographies of two artists, Campion and Savage, blending to emphasise a sense of displacement amidst a powerfully defined terrain, so key to the story told.
Two brothers, in their late thirties, run a ranch, and clearly lack spouses – sharing a bedroom, and if necessary, a bed – universes apart as humans, yet conjoined by property and obligation. Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) is the alpha, the cruel master of the manor, barely opening his disdainful mouth if it does not serve the purpose of maintaining a domineering iron fist over all he surveys. Cumberbatch almost disappears in this role, absorbed by a vortex of the negative space the character of Phil must emanate for the audience to believe the incredible power he sways over all others.
It’s both an acting triumph, and likely, a personal sacrifice, as the process itself must have been a hefty psychological burden to linger under.
A complex, poisoned chalice of a man, Phil was once a promising Classics scholar, perhaps heading somewhere other than where he now abides. Absorbing the role of a cowboy to the last affected syllable – all honest dirt and crude innuendo, determined to project a personality he so obsessively is bound to, we suspect there must be a powerful sexual drive to his dogged idealisation of the Western archetype.
And we find it, quite easily, in the shrine he maintains to one Bronco Henry, a family mentor, now deceased, and erotically deified.
A polar opposite to his overbearing brother, George (Jesse Plemons) is a quiet soul, yet with steely resolve not to indulge his sibling’s persistent, casual humiliations. A failure in conventional education, gentle George nevertheless understands his brother well, providing a masterclass at how to diffuse hostility when there is conceivably nowhere else to run. Plemons is wonderful in conveying a basic goodness that would be hard to accept wholesale were it not for all the vulnerabilities and nuances he brings to this stoic character.
While Phil unwaveringly idolises his deceased mentor Bronco, in ways that seem ever more intimate and haunted, George finds himself a partner, against all odds, a sweet, fragile widowed innkeeper, called Rose (Kirsten Dunst), with a loyal teenage son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who helps her in her work. Peter is an honest, delicate, intelligent presence, immediately catching Phil’s sadistic eye, and becoming the target of his homophobic bullying.
When Rose moves in with George, now as wife, and Peter is sent to college, Phil hones in on her, undermining her every step in violently misogynistic, yet subtly terrifying ways. Both Rose and George become hostage to his moods in the Gothic manor they now all share, but Rose is not as trained to withstand them.
Skillfully, heartbreakingly performed by Dunst, an increasingly distraught, unravelling Rose takes to drink, something which she once vocally abhorred.
And then, on his break from medical college, Peter visits the farm, to spend the summer with his mother, Smit-McPhee offering one of the most finely weaved, mischievously fascinating characters in contemporary cinema.
What ensues is a drama of epic intensity, yet enacted with minimum noise or excess, until its breathtaking finale.
In lesser hands, with this sort of tale, we might have been served a dry cinematic essay on toxic masculinity – necessary, but only scratching the surface of a more common type of rot. In turn, we were gifted with a poetic, slow-burning, merciless narration on how evil nests in a dissatisfied, selfish soul, breaking its humanity, reducing it to a performative shell, which then seeks to destroy and diminish all that is beautiful, vibrant, and good in its midst. For the sheer pleasure of feeding off another’s suffering, as it has no joy of its own.
The Power Of The Dog is also a careful meditation on how unlikely are the real heroes fighting its dominion.
With Jonny Greenwood‘s extraordinary, chilling score, Ari Wegner‘s pristine saturnine photography, Campion’s virtuoso, heartfelt direction and scripting, based on Savage’s sparse, devastatingly precise prose, all made vivid and alive by the gathered actors’ transformative performances – this long-awaited return to cinema of one of its greats is my personal best of 2021.
I’d give it ten star, if I could.
Author: ©Milana Vujkov