Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog” a fiercely complex character piece

Character driven, methodically paced storytelling from Jane Campion. The Power of the Dog can be an empowering journey of inner discovery, but most of the film is spent in a cesspool of toxic masculinity, reaffirming machismo. It’s a muddled and complex rendering of Thomas Savage’s novel, showing these characters as brutish and consciously flawed. It’s a tired world ruled by brute force, leaving no room for compassion or elegance. It’s boiled down into cynicism and has a sinister way of presenting it that handcuffs the characters to this ruthless way of life, forcing a survivalist instinct. It’s an atmosphere of dread, driven home by the impendingly grand Johnny Greenwood score, the gorgeous longer lens cinematography from Ari Wegner, and the incredible adaptation from Campion the writer. 

“Deliver me from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dogs.” Psalms 22:20

However, there’s nothing more attention-grabbing than the morbid complexity of Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and the dueling dynamic at the center of the film between Phil and Peter (Kodi-Smit McPhee). The script adds on many layers through their developing relationship. A relationship that starts from a place of sheer hate, but develops into a confused mentorship with a raging undercurrent only perceptible through smaller details and context clues. Both characters are written as easily recognizable western genre archetypes but through the subtlety, in their performances and Campion’s perfect balance of tone, we are opened up to a dynamic that’s unique and special. Motivations are key to understanding the many complexities of the character writing, and almost nothing is as it seems with both characters.

For instance, Peter is written as a lone wolf, with worldly sensibilities and not confined to the world Phil has curated like his mother Rose (Kirsten Dunst). As for Phil, he shows an unbending loyalty to his brother George (Jesse Plemons) and fierce dedication to the ranch. However, that initial impression are slowly degraded and lost, and the inverse of what we believe these characters to be is found to be true. Phil especially, as his mental state is shown to be incredibly fragile after Rose and George elope and present fast change for a man unused to change, while he presents himself as the ultimate masculine figure. Tear down one layer of his exterior to reveal a vulnerable human being longing for a connection to people he lost. As for Peter, he appears to be weakling and fragile but shows resolve that no character in the film matches.

Correspondingly, this makes the dynamic in the final chapter of their story such an enthralling piece of cinema. It’s not easily decipherable and even at times deceptive in how Campion presents it but overwhelmingly powerful in the portrayal. These scenes are when the two performances shine. Cumberbatch has never been better in his career — Phil desperately wants to be the machismo man he presents himself as but in reality is nothing like that person and substitutes his emotional trauma for cruelty. Cumberbatch channels that wanting desire to be different than the way his mind thinks and that internalized struggle is externalized in his performance. Smit-McPhee, on the other hand, brings such a calming presence and knowingness to the character. It’s incredible to see a character with his archetype break the mold entirely and show more strength than anyone else.

As for the rest of the cast, I found them to be mild and plain. Dunst delivers a damning portrayal of an abused drunk but failed to leave a lasting impression with few layers to her character. Peter does most of the heavy-lifting for Rose. Plemons mailed it in and showed little emotional resonance in his delivery. The film starts and ends with the Peter and Phil dynamic as far as I’m concerned.

Circling back to Jane Campion, she structures this story beautifully and gets the best out of these characters. The mountainous cinematography and production design-build an entirely immersive world that becomes easy to get lost in. It’s not artificial or tropey, it’s sensible in this broken world. And her writing is easily some of her best work and world-class effort. Few write characters with this much baggage without expositions. It’s really impressive. 

Lastly, I’m glad I waited to write a review for this film because my initial impression couldn’t yet fully comprehend all that’s happening in these performances. I was unsure of the ending, with a subversive tone to that infamous barn scene, but upon further reflection, I see the merit in each decision. Character pieces this in-depth are rare and need to be commended. It’s not the most exciting story ever written, but one that will undoubtedly make you think.

Extra Notes:

  • The Greenwood score is perfect. It has a similar rhythm to his There Will Be Blood score and drives the atmosphere beautifully. Undoubtedly one of his best
  • Ari Wegner’s work is immaculate. The best of the crafts in the film. The lens choice and photographic sensibilities add mystique to the film
  • Jane Campion said one of the biggest casting decisions was finding the “right mountain to shoot” and the one she picked encapsulates the message of the Savage novel 
  • The dueling banjo and piano scene is one of the years best


★★★★ (out of 5)

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