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New Zealand 2021
Directed by
Jane Campion
128 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

The Power Of The Dog

Although marketed as a Western Jane Campion’s film, her first since 2009’s Bright Star is closer to Terrence Malick’s Days Of Heaven (1978) by which time at least basic civilization has well-and-truly arrived.

The setting is 1920s Montana where two close brothers Phil and George Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons) run a prosperous cattle ranch. When George marries the local guesthouse operator, Rose (Kirsten Dunst), Phil resents the intrusion and bullies both her and her teenage son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee).

Centre-stage is Phil, an intelligent and educated man whose world-view has been shaped by his now-deceased mentor ‘Bronco’ Henry. Henry taught him how to be a cowboy and more importantly the man’s man ethic that underpinned the Frontier myth. Somehow in Phil’s case it got twisted into scorn for anyone who did not adhere to its code. His docile brother tolerates Phil’s belittling but when Rose and her son arrive on the ranch Phil starts tormenting the vulnerable Rose but finds that Peter is not the easy target he expected.

Scripted by Campion from a novel by Thomas Savage whose quality, even if one hasn’t read the original text, resonates through The Power Of The Dog is a fascinating psychological drama brought home by the superb performances and Campion’s masterful directing.

Cumberbatch gives an outstanding performance as Phil whose abrasive, bullying behaviour is of course a shield behind which he hides his own vulnerabilities, notably a repressed homosexuality which is sublimated in his pedestalising of ‘Bronco’ Henry and which is re-activated by the presence of the feminine and ostensibly “weak” Peter.

The bulk of the proceedings is given over to the evolving relationship between the two men. Although Smit-McPhee has a much more subdued role than Cumberbatch his performance too is remarkable as his quiet strength intrigues Phil and eventually wins him some measure of respect from the older man (although the change in Phil’s attitude towards him is rather too abruptly handled). Adding to the narrative dynamics Dunst and Plemons both shine in their support roles.

Campion and her cinematographer Ari Wegner’s give us remarkable visual compositions which often recall John Ford’s genre-defining work whilst Jonny Greenwood’s score adds sensitively to the mix. Whilst there are too many references to Henry the only recurring reservation I have is that Campion shot the film in New Zealand and whilst being a understandable expedient the landscape which after all is so crucial to the Western not only never looks right but rather than being worked around is actually made into a prominent feature of the film (compare for instance Edward Zwick's The Legends of The Fall,1994,  which was set in Montana around the same time as Campion's film).

This doesn’t however stop The Power of the Dog being a marvellous achievement and well worth a trip to the movies.

FYI: Geneviève Lemon who plays the cook, Mrs Lewis, goes back to Campion’s 1989 feature debut Sweetie whilst the director alludes to her best-known film, The Piano (1993) which explores thematically-related themes.




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