Despite the baffling snide comments it got from the hosts of the Oscars, and Sam Elliott of all people calling it not a real western, Jane Campion’s The Power Of The Dog remains one of the most interesting Best Picture nominees from last year’s Academy Awards, (in truth a much more deserving winner than CODA). Despite it’s reputation as an inaccessible, boring movie, it remains a methodical, fascinating meditation on masculinity and resentment with four pitch perfect central performances from Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons and Kodi Smit McPhee.
Cumberbatch gives, for my money his best film performance as the hard living Phil Burbank, who runs a ranch with his brother George (Plemons) in 1920s Montana (well, New Zealand dressed up as Montana). Phil is a complicated character, full of self-loathing and false bravado. He lives entirely in the shadow of his past mentor, the never seen Bronco Henry, a figure he still idolises well into adulthood, and from whom he gets his misplaced sense of macho masculinity. He’s an incredibly repressed character, unable to express his feelings and resentments verbally. When George tells him he has married the local widowed inn owner Rose (Dunst), Phil, thinking she is just marrying him for his money, storms out into the barn where he takes his anger out on a horse, calling it a “bitch.” Throughout, he takes delight in tormenting Rose psychologically, driving her to drink unbeknownst to her oblivious husband, even taking Rose’s sensitive son Peter (McPhee) under his wing in an attempt to get under her skin.
What frustrated me the most about the widespread disdain for the film is the fact that so many people derided it for it’s slow pacing. In truth it is anything but boring. What it doesn’t do is hold the audience’s hand at any point, but the story is evident for anyone who is paying attention. The cinematography is beautiful, and in places truly impressive – the wide shots of the western landscapes are incredible, making breathtaking use of depth of field, and in other places Campion consciously evokes the imagery of the classic western – specifically that final shot of The Searchers (although at this point I think this is just a prerequisite for making a modern western) The empty, sprawling landscapes are perfectly utilized to highlight the isolation of the main characters – there’s an oppressive loneliness to the scenes of Dunst on her own in the big house.
And yet it’s a tricky film to write about effusively, despite the fact I really really enjoyed it, because above all it’s a character study, and as such there isn’t a great deal of action that can be discussed without giving a lot away. The whole film has an enigmatic, ineffable feel to it, and it’s all directed with a wonderfully light tough by Campion. Intimate character moments are beautifully realized, such as George and Rose’s first dance while at a picnic, Rose tentatively practicing on the piano, or Phil’s solo swim with a significant handkerchief, that expresses more than dialogue ever could. These scenes are complimented perfectly by Johnny Greenwood’s sparse, moody score, which perfectly fits the film’s harsh environment and the cruelty of the main characters.
There are inevitable comparisons to be made with Brokeback Mountain in the depiction of the implicitly homosexual characterisation of Phil, but while that film is a love story, this very much isn’t. It’s a psychological drama, a cat and mouse game between Phil and Rose, and then between Phil and Pete. Campion expertly uses the staples of the western genre to wrong-foot the audience on exactly where the danger is coming from. The shifting character dynamics are wonderfully observed, from Rose’s descent into alcoholism to Phil’s growing affection for Pete.
The Power Of The Dog is my favourite Campion film by quite a way, and one that only gets better with each rewatch. In fact so much more of the subtext becomes apparent upon a second viewing that I would urge you to watch it more than once. It’s a revelatory drama and deconstruction of the mythic old west all wrapped up together, and I get the distinct feeling that in ten years time this will be held up alongside the very best modern westerns.
The extras on this Criterion release include an interview with Campion about the making of the film, a featurette with interviews with members of the cast and crew and behind-the-scenes footage; an interview with Campion and Greenwood about the film’s score; a conversation between Campion, director of photography Ari Wegner, Kirsten Dunst, and producer Tanya Seghatchian, moderated by filmmaker Tamara Jenkins; and a new interview with Brokeback Mountain author Annie Proulx.