Venice 2021 review: The Power of the Dog (Jane Campion)

“Campion connects the dots she has laid out throughout the film to leave the viewer in awe as the lights go up and everything starts to click.”

The cowboy. The manly man. Hollywood’s quintessential hero, the kind of man all men should aspire to be and all women should swoon for. A rugged man of few words, a cigarette, and a wide-brimmed hat, the all-American image. If ever there was a trope in need of deconstruction it is this one, and boy, does Jane Campion’s slow-burn epic drama The Power of the Dog, based on Thomas Savage’s novel of the same name, tear it apart. Built around an incredibly mannered but engrossing and charismatic performance by Benedict Cumberbatch, Campion’s latest uses its slow pace and Jonny Greenwood’s best score to date (yes, it even tops his masterful work for There Will Be Blood) to gradually turn the screws to breaking point. All before pulling the rug from under you in the film’s final reveal, tying the screenplay together in such a way that one of the central relationships in the film (arguably the central relationship) must be viewed in an entirely different, multi-faceted light.

The scene, and what a beautiful scene it is in Ari Wegner’s gorgeously lush cinematography, is Montana, 1925. Modernity and civilization are slowly creeping into the heartland of America, where a man on a horse is still king. Phil (Cumberbatch) and George Burbank (Jesse Plemons) are two brothers from a rich family of cattle farmers, and they couldn’t be more different. George is the quieter one, perhaps not so smart but ever friendly, whereas Phil is the one that has the respect of all the ranch hands, even if he’s, to put it in his own vernacular, ‘a mean ol’ son of a bitch’. A cowboy through and through, Phil idolizes his old mentor Bronco Henry, filling the ear of everyone who wants to hear it (and those who don’t) with stories of his deceased role model. When George unexpectedly marries a local restaurant owner, the widowed Rose (an appropriately glammed-down Kirsten Dunst), Phil is having none of it, going out of his sadistic way to make life at the ranch a living hell for Rose and her studious son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). But power shifts when Phil’s rugged and cruel exterior is shown to belie a tortured soul of unexpected repression, and someone with an eye for it can use that to their advantage. And that someone is around.

If the gist of what Campion does in The Power of the Dog can be summarized in two scenes, it’s the mirroring scenes at the beginning and end of the film in which we see Phil walk past the Burbank mansion, filmed through the ground-floor windows of the kitchen. In the earlier scene he is sauntering past in all his bow-legged confidence. By the end of the film he is weak and stumbling, all bluster gone. The deconstruction of the myth is complete, and all that’s needed is to put it to rest. A deconstruction which started with making Phil, the cowboy avant la lettre, the antagonist of the story, whereas the protagonist role that shifts from George to Rose and finally Peter is the supposedly ‘weaker’ character. Having no true protagonist is a master stroke by Campion, as this allows her to fully focus on the toxic masculinity of her antagonist Phil, a masculinity that the genre has so long championed. Eventually Phil’s way of life and of looking at the world is ushered out in favor of a new era rolling in over the hills of Montana (well, New Zealand, actually, as that’s where it was filmed), and this is shown as a sign of progress, a victory of kindness over the bigotry and hatred displayed by the avatar of a toxic hero culture that cinema has fed us for so long.

As a genre, the Western is not new to repressed homosexuality, and Cumberbatch’s Phil is a prime example of that. All the gay self-hate that makes him lash out at the people around him is pent-up anger that stems from his history with the man he worshipped, where clearly some form of sexual abuse was involved. When he and Peter finally start to form a tenuous bond against the will of Rose, driven to alcoholism by Phil’s constant psychological torture, the homoeroticism goes through the roof, culminating in a pivotal scene whose intense sensuousness takes on a sinister form as the full extent of Peter’s growth as a man is laid out in the final scenes. Campion connects the dots she has laid out throughout the film to leave the viewer in awe as the lights go up and everything starts to click.

The Power of the Dog‘s deliberate slow pace raises the tension in a way that makes the long runtime fly by. It grips you by the proverbial balls like Phil grips a young ox that needs castrating, another small nod to his hidden sexuality. Compounding the oppressive atmosphere is the stunning way Wegner shoots Montana’s landscape, its wide-open desolate spaces isolating the few souls roaming within them. You’re on your own in these here lands, is what the cinematography emphasizes, and for people at the bottom of the food chain in this microcosmos, women like Rose or wispy men with a lisp like Peter, that is a threatening position to be in, certainly with men like Phil prowling around like mountain lions. Campion amalgamates all the technical elements into a powerful film that has the look and feel of a Western while almost being anti-Western in its messaging, at least compared to the type of genre film Hollywood generally throws at us.

The large cast, which also features veteran character actors Keith Carradine and Frances Conroy as well as young star Thomasin McKenzie in small supporting roles, is uniformly in top form. Plemons has the most thankless role as the toothless George, while Dunst is quietly powerful as a woman not fitting into this new world and fleeing to the bottle to escape the barrage of psychological abuse by her brother-in-law (you’ll never hear the Radetzky March again without a shiver, for sure). The big revelation is Kodi Smit-McPhee, whose thin and sexually ambiguous Peter slowly wrestles power away from his sadistic nemesis to protect his mother. Smit-McPhee is powerfully menacing in his own way, showing that true power does not always lie in physicality. His attraction to Phil is ambiguous, which introduces a kill-your-desire psychology into their tense relationship in the film’s back half, and the actor chillingly portrays a man who acknowledges the smallest of opportunities to crawl out of his corner and acts on it with deadly determination. That said, the film belongs to Cumberbatch’s intense performance that chews the scenery like there is no tomorrow (admittedly, it looks very tasty in the right light that Wegner always seems to catch). There is certainly an over-the-top element in the way Cumberbatch portrays the mean Phil, but he keeps it appropriately small in the few moments when he is allowed to show his vulnerability. It’s a towering portrayal of a memorable cinematic villain, ironically destroying the good image of the character type he is playing. Campion’s sensibilities, Cumberbatch’s performance, and a large budget give The Power of the Dog the chance to be a terrific addition to a worn-out genre that Hollywood only in recent years is trying to re-evaluate.