'The Power of the Dog': Jane Campion Returns with an Incredible, Understated Western
Updated: Jan 24, 2022
There is a rough, grimy sense of unease that permeates Jane Campion's latest film The Power of the Dog. But underneath the tough exterior is a sense of softness and beauty that occasionally shines through. I would argue that you could also describe the film's protagonist, Phil Burbank, this way. He is an abrasive, charismatic bully that has a domineering presence over his ranch and the people around him, but while he is outspoken, there is so much that he is keeps inside. When his brother George brings his new wife and her son to live at the ranch, a chain of events is set in motion that forces Phil to confront these long repressed parts of his psyche, as well as secrets that might threaten his status at the top of the pecking order.
This is Jane Campion's first film in 12 years, and it is a most welcome and electrifying return for her. With this film we see her wrestling with a lot of the same themes seen throughout the rest of her filmography, such as power dynamics, obsession, and sexuality. The film also has a lot to say about masculinity, although it approaches it much differently than your typical Western. Whereas most Westerns tend to glamorize the machismo of their leads, this film subverts this trend, and instead chips away at the manly facade of its protagonist, and reveals the true humanity of the character. We find that he isn't just some tough, unfeeling man, but someone who is dealing with certain feelings and desires that he would never reveal to anyone. The film wisely doesn't spoon feed the audience anything, and uses ambiguity rather well throughout. For example, Phil's constant evocation of his mentor, Bronco Henry, suggests that there may have been more to their relationship than it seems. And with the arrival of his brother's new wife and her son, it seems that something is awakened in him that has laid dormant for a long time. Even the ending has a heavy dose of ambiguity, but it all works so well in the context of the film, and is challenging, yet highly intriguing.
Campion is no stranger to featuring complicated characters in her work, and Phil Burbank just may be one of her most challenging ones to date. His cruelty towards others is rather upsetting, but when we pull back the layers of the character, we see a complex portrait of a man clinging to the power he has over the people in his life. He isn't particularly likable, but he has an air of mystery and unpredictability to him that is beguiling and oddly magnetic. Campion is such an empathetic filmmaker, which is what makes her such a great match for this film. She helps keep the film from feeling too unbearable to watch. It's still challenging, but still makes sure that it enough edge and substance to make it a singular experience.
While Campion's contributions are a major part of why the film works as well as does, Benedict Cumberbatch's performance just might be the linchpin of the whole project. He brings so much depth and specificity to the character which further adds to the layered nature of the character. Cumberbatch has a tendency to put everything into his characters, which pays off immaculately for him here. He manages to match the energy of the film so well, and gives such a full-bodied performance. Compared to his co-stars, Cumberbatch has the more showier performance, but it doesn't feel out of place. He has this large, looming presence that often requires him to go bigger, but it's never exaggerated or unnecessary. He balances this with some restraint, and is just so dialed in from start to finish. It's easily his best performance to date, and one of my favorites of the year.
Cumberbatch isn't the only one doing exceptional work, however. Kirsten Dunst gives an incredible and understated performance that wisely avoids the clichés associated with this type of role. Dunst portrays her character's fraught mental state with such authenticity and precision, and she allows you to truly feel for her. The animosity between her and Cumberbatch is so palpable, and adds to the uneasy tension of the film. She more than holds her own against him, and she makes every bit of her time on screen stand out. I was also highly impressed by Kodi Smit-McPhee's work here, as it is such a subtle, yet affecting performance. He is able to convey so much while doing so little, which is an impressive feat for any actor. He serves as a bit of an antithesis to Cumberbatch, and the strange relationship their characters have plays into the themes of power and masculinity in a major way. His performance reels the viewer in, and the journey he goes on is fascinating and surprising. If there's any justice in the world, he will get an Oscar nod, as he is truly that good here.
The way the film explores the dynamics of power between Phil and the other prominent characters is masterful, and is the crux of the whole narrative. So much of the film hinges on this, and is integral to the conflicts we see throughout it. One of the ways it portrays power is through Ari Wegner's gorgeous cinematography. The landscape shots alone are breathtaking, but it's what she does with angles that really spoke to me. Most of the time that we see Phil, the shot is a low angle and we're looking up at him a little. When we see some of the other characters, it's more of a high angle shot, where we are looking down at them. Throughout the film, we see these subtle angles, which perfectly show the balance of power between various characters. Furthermore, Wegner does a great job of bringing the film's mix of beauty and disturbing elements to the way certain shots are composed, and does a phenomenal job of capturing such a specific place and time. It's such a great example of creating a distinct atmosphere that perfectly captures the world of the film, and it feels so different from anything I've seen in recent memory. Adding on to the distinct atmosphere is Jonny Greenwood's fantastic score, which starts out beautiful, but gradually becomes more dissonant as the film goes on. It's one of the best uses of a score I've heard all year.
The Power of the Dog is one of those films that I have needed to take some time to gather my thoughts on, and through that, I have found the film itself coming together in my mind. It hit me pretty hard when I saw it, but it has some lasting aftereffects that I did not see coming. The themes, specific scenes and shots, and especially the performances have lingered with me, and will likely continue to do so for the forseeable future. It's the type of film that hits you hard enough on first watch, but then, it slowly sinks in and your appreciation for it only grows from there. I have appreciated the few Jane Campion films I've seen prior to this, but this film truly put how great of a filmmaker she is into perspective for me. She is a master of blending weighty themes with stark humanism, and is able to subvert common tropes in a way that feels refreshing and impactful. I hope it doesn't take another 12 years for her to make another movie, but if she needs to take her time to develop a project where she is working at the level she is with this film, I would understand.
I can see this being a film that will further reveal itself upon rewatch, as there is quite a bit to dig into. This is one of the few films I've seen this year that has managed to truly shock me. I honestly did not see the film going in the direction that it ultimately did, but it makes the film such an uneasy and unpredictable ride. Even in the film's slower moments, I was so curious to see where the film was going, and I was hooked the entire time. I may have even more to say on this film once I process it even more. This film is such a knock-out on many levels, and is a massive achievement for everyone involved. It's a film that might put some people off due to its more challenging aspects, but once you see the beauty and strong themes underneath the surface, its hard not to be impressed by it.