September 16, 2021
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The Power of the Dog – first-look review

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By: Sophie Monks Kaufman

It is a sign of the times that although macho ideals still permeate society – through men’s right activists, violent incels and bulldog politicians – there is a dearth of lead actors interested in embodying the wounded machismo that epitomised the likes of Marlon Brando, James Dean, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood.

Amidst today’s legions of amiable Marvel beefcakes and ironic indie darlings, we’re hard pushed to find a star (beyond Adam Driver) who is comfortable with channelling the vulnerability and danger of unreconstructed masculinity with all its swagger, sex and tendency towards humiliating weaker specimens. As the artist Paula Cole once sang, “Where have all the cowboys gone?”

In the absence of any obvious alternative, Benedict Cumberbatch steps into the spurred boots of alpha bully Phil Burbank, striking the only false note in Jane Campion’s otherwise immaculate adaptation of Thomas Savage’s 1967 western novel.

The year is 1925. Phil owns a ranch in Montana with his brother George (Jesse Plemons). Nearby, recently widowed Rose (Kirsten Dunst) is trying to survive with her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) by running a small restaurant. One visit from the Burbanks later and Rose has a new husband in George and a new enemy in Phil. “Hello, brother Phil,” says Rose on entering her new home, the dark and well-appointed Burbank ranch. “I’m not your brother, you’re a cheap schemer,” he says, as her face crumples.

Dunst does emotional heavy lifting as a character who has trouble speaking, showing ragged and devastated emotions as Phil finds new ways to psychologically torture her. This is a man’s world and a man’s film, still the matter of her wellbeing gives heart to the film and motivates key events. These powers, such as they are, do not serve her. The wild landscapes of Central Otago in New Zealand (standing in for Montana) are vast, beautiful and lonely. She is trapped. Jonny Greenwood’s heavy grind of a score adds to the atmosphere of claustrophobia.

Campion slowly extricates the individual elements of her tale, with the same methodical precision that Peter – a medical student – uses to dissect the innards of a bunny rabbit. Striking images leap off the screen, like Peter’s lanky figure rotating a hula hoop around his hips outside Rose’s restaurant at dusk. He is a delicate boy who can make roses out of paper. Phil uses one such paper rose to light a cigarette, then throws its charred remains into a water jug, where it hisses. The next shot shows Rose in the next room framed by a glass door pane, reacting to this destruction with pain.

The film is powered by the slow-burn enigma of who Phil and Peter are. They initially present as two male archetypes in conflict: the macho man vs the effete boy, yet each is composed of layers. The shedding of these continuously alters the chemistry of their relationship creating a sophisticated power struggle that makes the third act of the film utterly gripping and hard to predict. The queer subtext of Savage’s book is dialled up, infusing the tension between the two with a sensuality that adds one more factor to the mystery of how this relationship will play out.

Campion’s style is textured naturalism with the occasional dash of symbolism thrown in for fun, such as in one sexually-charged moment when Phil is simultaneously talking to Peter and banging a giant fencepost into the ground. Yet shivers arise from the attention to period, costume and location detailing. Honest dirt abounds, and cows hooves clatter. This is a lived-in world, as vividly wrought as 19th-century North Island was in The Piano.

The young Smit-McPhee acts Cumberbatch off the screen. The latter’s thespy instincts and over-baked accent (“Well, ain’t that purdy”) are no match for his co-star’s compelling subtlety. Indeed, Smit-McPhee is more effective at showing inner life than Cumberbatch who, for all his grandstanding, is strangely opaque. The off-putting elements of his performance become less distracting as the film goes on, yet this reviewer spent a lot of time while watching thinking of recast options (Cosmo Jarvis? Tom Hardy?)

The Power of the Dog is brilliant and ambitious enough to absorb this imperfection. Campion is a master of intertwining character and plot, so that a revelation of one nudges the other along. In this, her first film explicitly centring male psychology after a career of female character studies, she makes observations about masculinity and power that defy classification. She has blown these subjects wide open and we can but stand still and try to catch the fragments as they rain down.

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