Saturday, 8 January 2022

The Power Of The Dog

This is a version of a review heard on ABC Radio Victoria on January 7, 2021.

(M) ★★★★

Director: Jane Campion.

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Thomasin McKenzie, Genevieve Lemon, Keith Carradine, Frances Conroy, Peter Carroll.

"Sing one more verse of Rawhide, I dare ya!"

There are many mysteries buried within The Power Of The Dog, but perhaps the biggest one is "why has it taken Jane Campion 12 years to make a new feature film?".

Of course the Kiwi director has been busy in that time, but the quiet mysteries and beautiful look of this slow yet intense Western serve as a keen reminder of Campion's skills.

Adapting Thomas Savage's long-forgotten novel, it tells of two wealthy ranchers, Phil and George Burbank. Though brothers, they're like chalk and cheese - Phil (Cumberbatch) is a mean-spirited man living in the shadow of his long-dead idol Bronco Henry, while George (Plemons) is quiet, lonely, and seemingly in search of something more in his life.

When George marries a local widow named Rose (Dunst), it causes friction with Phil, but the arrival of Rose's teenaged son Peter (Smit-McPhee) at the Burbank's Montana ranch sets off a dramatic series of events.

The Power Of The Dog drifts from pretty and plain to unsettling and odd in a matter of moments as it sifts through intriguing ideas about love and loss, masculinity and sexuality, power and pride. Jonny Greenwood's wonderfully evocative score mirrors these subtle tonal shifts, edging into discordance and atonality as the story gets off-kilter. The Radiohead multi-instrumentalist's work is one of many highlights, along with the cast, and the gorgeous cinematography from Ari Wegner.

All of this contributes to the power and beauty of the story, as mysteries slowly unravel in unexpected ways. There's a gothic quality to it all that makes it more of a psychological drama than a western at times, thanks in part to the production design of the Burbank mansion, a strange edifice to civility in the middle of the Montana wilds (for which New Zealand is fine substitute).

Cumberbatch and Smit-McPhee are outstanding in the leads. Cumberbatch plays Phil like a classic bastard but different shades emerge as the film progresses, beautifully realised by the script and the actor. He seemingly softens through his friendship with Smit-McPhee's Peter, a character that also reveals greater complexity as the story progresses. Dunst is also outstanding, though serves as third fiddle to magnetism of Cumberbatch and the creeping strangeness of Smit-McPhee, with the latter threatening to steal the show. Smit-McPhee's is a performance that becomes greater and more impressive the more you think about it after the credits have rolled.

Campion's return to the feature film director's chair is a welcome one, and The Power Of The Dog shows once again her incredible talents as a storyteller. Let's hope we don't have to wait so long again for her next film.

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