The Power Of The Dog movie review: Fierce, brutal in its own way, and wildly beautiful at end of it all
In The Power of the Dog, director Jane Campion finds that rare, lyrical way to suppress everything the western genre obviates without losing its harsh, exterior coating.
castBenedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Kodi Smit-mcphee, Jesse Plemons
Jane Campion is a strangely elusive filmmaker. Not only is her work scarce and sporadic but she seems to want to subvert genres as if they are nothing but eggshells preventing cinema to crack open with dubiously chaotic energy. The first woman to ever win the Palme D or has, after a gap of ten years, made a western for Netflix. And as is the Campion way, it flips genre and gender roles on its head by setting a homoerotic story in the middle of a dry, rusty 1920s Montana ranch. The Power of the Dog, is fierce, brutal in its own way and wildly beautiful at the end of it all. Campion finds that rare, lyrical way to suppress everything the western genre obviates without losing its harsh, exterior coating. It is moving, tragic and stunning in the most revelatory way.
Phil played by Benedict Cumberbatch and George played by Jesse Plemons are the Burbank brothers, heirs to a surprisingly successful ranch in 1920s Montana. Phil is a bully, an instinctively toxic man who spares neither his subjects nor his brother. Cumberbatch injects the dirty skin of his character with the cold vein of remorselessness. There is no space for weak men in this world, and it’s an adage that Phil wears on his sleeve. George, played by the terrific Plemons on the other hand is a gentler, more accommodating soul who falls for Rose, a local widow played by the stunning Kirsten Dunst. Dunst has a teenage son, whose feminine yet quizzically deep habits make him the subject of both ridicule and intrigue in a world that only knows how to deal with the unforgiving external life of things rather than what holds them together on the inside.
Rose moves into the ranch along with her son, much to the disdain of Phil who goes out of his way to make her feel unwelcome. In a scene where Rose attempts to play a newly acquired piano, Phil competes with her, in a quietly revealing sequence that delivers both his angst and hidden artsy side. Dunst is entirely in her element here, as she finds her feet on a ranch that is overseen by a certain brand of masculinity. But while Phil is tough on the outside, there is a hidden side to the Burbank brothers that they evidently, refuse to discuss – they sleep on the same bed at night. To Phil, hiding in plain sight is the same survival tactic as it is to shoot someone in the dark of night. Perceptions matter, even to the fatalism of a bullet that knows not one target from the other.
As is Campion’s way, the film uses its geography to stunning effect, casually feeding you the claustrophobia of a land without any tangible form of vulnerability, maybe even love. Sure, the Burbank brothers live together, but is their possessiveness of each other out of fear of loneliness or simply affection for the unsaid. Westerns are always set within the language of gun toting villains, sheriffs and a rare brand of despotism that is as universal as it seems unforgiveable. In Campion’s film, no bullets are fired, no guns brandished, no laws broken, except the one – the law of naturalism, of love streaming through the gates of prejudice and persecution. Even the visual trick, after which the film is named, is so smoothly introduced into the fabric of the film it feels overwhelming simple and yet, eternally affecting. It’s again, a matter of perception, Campion tells us, a matter of seeing boundaries as the contours of being something people neither wish, nor can bring themselves to see in you.
Plemons’ usual understated brand of nervous acting aside – as good as it is – the film belongs to both Cumberbatch and Dunst. As adversaries there is a soap-ish quality to their feud and yet it rises above the essentials of bitterness into something horrid and inverted. Both Rose and Phil, are in a way, survivors, keen on surviving the cards life has dealt. While one chooses to hide, the other chooses to break down in plain sight. Either way, they play to the gallery, instruments that are expected and not those that are needed. The lack of an obvious form of sensuality, makes this film terse and tight, as if it is holding its breathe. Phil’s secrets are communicated well ahead of the climax and they make his performative toxicity that much more tragic and painful to absorb. Cumberbatch perfectly embodies a man yearning to let go, look the wolf in the eye, but in scenes where his insides evidently crumble he stands steadfast, as the tragic manifestation of an open and unforgiving secret – men do as men are expected to do here. Campion’s film finds the genre of the western a new language to speak in, where the violence enacted is mostly internal, its wounds, however, deeper, even terminal.
Power of the Dog is releasing on Netflix on December 1.
Manik Sharma writes on art and culture, cinema, books, and everything in between.
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