Jane Campion has always been an impressively talented filmmaker, who usually not only directs her films but writes the sceenplays as well, with a unique idea of how to tell a story in the visual medium. Born in New Zealand and now living in Australia, she has previously brought us films like Bright Star, The Portrait of a Lady, Holy Smoke!, the multiple Oscar-winning The Piano, and Emmy-winning television series Top of the Lake. From these selections you can see that she has told many a different type of story from different eras and about a variety of people. No typecasting this director. What stays the same is the quality of her work.
While Campion did not totally disappear, as she was doing the series Top of the Lake between 2013-2017, The Power of the Dog signals her return to the big screen as her last film, Bright Star, was in 2009. I am here to tell you she has made it worth the wait. Your patience is rewarded and should result in some more nominations for the director.
First off, her cast is impressive and at the top of their games here. Led impressively by Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as the mercurial Phil Burbank and supported by the husband-wife team of Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst. The cast is rounded out by Kodi Smit-McPhee, Keith Carradine and Frances Conroy. No matter the size or significance of their role each of the actors here bring something during their time onscreen.
The Power of the Dog (taken from a line in the Bible which appears in the film) transports us to Montana in the 1920s. The story centers around the life and relationship of brothers George (Jesse Plemons – Jungle Cruise, The Irishman) and Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch – The Electric Life of Louis Wain, Doctor Strange). They are thriving ranchers who lead rather solitary lives which are wrapped around their ranch and cattle. The two adult brothers are single and even still sleep in the same room even though they live in an expansive house.
That changes when George meets and subsequently marries widower, Rose (Kristen Dunst – Interview with the Vampire, The Beguiled). Phil is not happy about this disruption in his life, it seems. His anger is very apparent as he is not very welcoming to Rose and her teenage son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee – Let Me In, The Road). George is too mild-mannered to say anything to his brother.
All this simmering anger and outright mind games result in Rose wilting, beginning to drink too much. Surprisingly due to his quiet awkwardness, Peter seems better capable to handle the aggression and eventually, he and Phill seem to strike up a sort of friendship. Or do they?
Between this film and The Electric Life of Louis Wain (also screening at TIFF this year), Brit Benedict Cumberbatch is having himself quite a year. Now, he is already been recognized by his peers, those in the film industry and film fans as a talented bloke, but in these two films, he sizzles. In very different ways. Here he brings to life a repressed yet magnetic, traumatized yet fascinating man. A man whom everyone wants to be around. A man with such an aura that no one really stands up to him. Someone who Cumberbatch has infused with an electricity which is contained right underneath his surface and you are left holding your breath wondering when it is going to explode.
Rounding out the solid performances by the cast is the intriguing story, adapted from Thomas Savage’s cult novel, and the stunning cinematography by Ari Wegner (Lady MacBeth, Zola), who is being awarded with a Tribute Award at this year’s TIFF. The golden grass, the stunning horses and the picturesque vistas all will treat your eyes.
The story goes deeper than a brother-brother relationship as it also has subtle commentary about the male gaze, the effects of suppressed desire, and toxic masculinity. All this is expertly woven into a film that is inherently a Western yet follows none of the usual tropes of the genre. Only in the skilled hands of a director like Jane Campion could this ambitious project be brought forth in such an impactful way.