The Power of the Dog

Jane Campion’s THE POWER OF THE DOG is set in the vast open plains of the American West in the 1920s, but its psychological atmosphere is claustrophobic in many ways. The suffocating presence of a hostile relative, the stifling effect of suppressed desire, and overbearing masculinity are all brought to bear on the characters by a combination of Campion’s craft, her actors’ screen presence, and Jonny Greenwood’s score.

The Burbank brothers – Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons) – are ranchers in 1920s Montana. George is more softly spoken and empathetic than his brother, who presents himself brusquely, moulding himself after their deceased mentor ‘Bronco Henry’ (whose absence hangs over the film like a mournful shadow). Their difference in manner is most clearly apparent when they dine at the establishment run by Rose (Kirsten Dunst). Phil takes it upon himself to homophobically mock the paper flowers created by Rose’s son, the crew’s waiter, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). George, however, consoles Rose, sparking a relationship that progresses to marriage. Rose and Peter move into the Burbank household to the chagrin of the abusive Phil and, later, Rose’s waning sanity.

Cumberbatch’s performance dominates most of the film’s showier aspects with a sneering and malevolent presence he has managed to summon before, but under a director who uses this to amplify the film’s character dynamics. Phil is an abusive omnipresence for Rose, with Campion framing or placing him frequently just out of sight of the tortured woman – nothing but a hint of grimy clothing or the ominous twang of a banjo chord.

“Smit-McPhee toes a delicate line between being engaging and inscrutable, a crucial balance to have hit when narrative events re-contextualise his role as the film progresses.”

The more elusive, but just as important, performance is from Smit-McPhee as Peter, especially once Phil’s relationship with him moves beyond disdain. Smit-McPhee toes a delicate line between being engaging and inscrutable, a crucial balance to have hit when narrative events re-contextualise his role as the film progresses.

The interaction between these two men develops into the film’s core and the clearest relationship where Campion’s screenplay (based on the 1967 novel by Thomas Savage) plays with our understanding of each character. It becomes clear the brutish, rugged Phil wears his toxic masculinity as a cover; it is scar tissue for a deeply damaged emotional history that is left opaque but hints to the deeper source of his malcontent in the world. In contrast, Peter appears to glide around the jeers and mocking his slightly fey manner and style attract from the ranch hands. Peter has an unassertive self-assuredness that is disarming and increasingly intrigues Phil. Under a cloud of abuse, Peter fails to collapse into the misanthropic misery that the elder Burbank brother displays.

“…where [THERE WILL BE BLOOD] turned an eye towards the corrupting effect of early capitalism on a turbulent nation, Campion’s instead illustrates the scarring effect of pursuing hyper-masculinity in an evolving society and the punishing repression which can follow.”

With the Western setting of THE POWER OF THE DOG and an enigmatic Jonny Greenwood score, THERE WILL BE BLOOD is a clear echo. However, where Paul Thomas Anderson’s film turned an eye towards the corrupting effect of early capitalism on a turbulent nation, Campion’s instead illustrates the scarring effect of pursuing hyper-masculinity in an evolving society and the punishing repression which can follow. Phil and Peter show two sides of the same coin: both are educated men who search for their place in this rapidly shifting society in different ways. Even Plemons’ George has a role to play here as the more sensitive but much more eager to please brother, courting the validation of the upper classes in contrast to his brother’s forthright rejection.

At one stage, a ranch hand implores Phil to explain what only he observes in the shadows and crevices of the rolling land overlooking the Burbank ranch, looking for validation there is, indeed, something there: “Not if you can’t see it, there ain’t”, comes the reply. THE POWER OF THE DOG shows only as much as it needs you to see at the different stages of the story, with Campion patiently building her film to reveal the full landscape of the story and characters to us.

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