M, 127 minutes
Review by © Jane Freebury
Sensuality laced with violence often features in the films of writer-director Jane Campion whose remarkable career, with its surprisingly modest output, saw her the first female director to win a Palme d’Or at Cannes. There have been numerous awards and accolades but that particular win, among her first, had far-reaching resonance.
Her third feature, The Piano in 1993, was extraordinarily compelling, a different take on things that some would say reflects a female point of view, in an industry dominated by men. In her latest film, The Power of the Dog, which is either a western or a chamber piece, or both, there is a hulking man at the centre of the narrative. For the acclaimed filmmaker, this is something new.
Campion wrote her screenplay based on the novel of the same name by Thomas Savage, published in 1967. The magnificent mountains that rear into the distance are not in Montana where the book is set but near Otago in the South Island of New Zealand. Landscape sensuously integrated into the stories of the people who live within it, is another feature of Campion’s work.
Sensuality and violence are intertwined in this dark, twisty, compelling and very handsome alternative western by a master female filmmaker
The privilege of playing the lead male role has gone to Benedict Cumberbatch, who showed the world he was spectacularly unafraid to appear naked and vulnerable in Frankenstein for the London stage. In this modernist take on the cowboy western, Cumberbatch plays Montana rancher, Phil Burbank, without any hint of a soft underbelly. Not during the early chapters, anyway.
There are instead unsettling introductory scenes of pent-up violence, presided over by a glowering Phil, belittling all who would show any womanly weakness. With his lofty, threatening figure, backlit and in partial silhouette, it feels like the narrative could take off in a number of different directions.
Softness belongs to the brother he calls Fatso. George (Jesse Plemons) is a put-upon and pudgy brother, who we assume has been abused by Phil for his entire life.
Dynamics in the ranch change radically, however, when George brings a new wife home, Rose (Kirsten Dunst), a widow of means with a son, Peter (Australian actor Kodi Smit-McPhee). One moment, George is assisting Rose in her catering work, the next he mentions to Phil that he expects their mother will welcome the new Mrs Burbank to the ranch.
When the elderly parents of the two men visit, it’s apparent that Phil’s bizarre behaviour is a concern for others, not just George’s gentle new wife. Moreover, she suddenly realises that there is far more to her husband’s rogue brother than she thought. Not only does Phil’s skill at the banjo mock her feeble attempts to practise piano, she finds out that he topped his class at Yale in classics. A very dark horse, indeed.
Poor Rose hits the bottle, secreting supplies of bourbon in amongst her clothing and in the bed she has trouble getting out of each day. George seems powerless to help. Then Peter returns on vacation from medical studies at university, and takes the narrative in a whole new direction, relegating the lovely Dunst, to a secondary role.
We have seen Smit-McPhee grow up on screen since he was the son in Romulus, My Father and The Road. He is impressive here as the young man forced to run the gauntlet of the masculinist ranching community, mocked for being different as an emerging gay man.
This is so different for Campion who has had a special talent for depicting the repression and flowering of female desire on screen. That has been a hallmark of much her best work, like The Piano, Sweetie, In the Cut, The Portrait of a Lady and An Angel at my Table, stories about women trying to find their voice and their own way in life.
Bright Star, her fine film on the last years of John Keats concerns an ailing man, but it is told from the perspective of his female paramour. Compared to the doomed Romantic poet, Cumberbatch is all id, a swaggering closet gay man who intimidates any who dare to express the feelings he is in denial of.
Here at the heart of The Power of the Dog is a man full of contradictions and compelling, dark energy, who is driving the narrative. It is compelling and Campion is back in top form.