Based on the eponymous novel by Thomas Savage, The Power of the Dog is not the first Western to grace the London Film Festival this year. Following on from the explosive opening night gala The Harder They Fall, it’s a change of pace: a slow and meditative character study, as much about the landscape as it is about the people who inhabit it. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, and Jesse Plemons, it’s a quietly powerful film that doesn’t draw attention to itself but stands as a strong festival contender.
The Power of the Dog
Director: Jane Campion
Release date: October 11, 2021 (LFF)\
It’s 1925. Phil Burbank (Cumberbatch) and his laconic brother George (Plemons) have been ranchers together since the turn of the century. They were taught by an expert rider and rancher but they’re striking out on their own after his death. Phil is the more talkative, charismatic, and aggressive of the two: his brother is gentler, mild-mannered, in many ways his opposite. Phil’s expectations of him are subverted when George quietly marries widowed Rose (Dunst) and takes in her son, Peter (newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee).
At first, Phil is openly cruel to his new family. He lashes out at Rose: saying they’re not related, accusing her of being a low, scheming widow, just after George for his money and ranch (it’s not entirely fair as she’s sold her modest property to come and live with him.) He’s also aggravated by Peter, who is a shy, delicate young man and doesn’t conform to his idea of masculinity. Phil is difficult to calculate. Rude and abrupt, it transpires that he studied Classics at Yale but since left that high-society life behind to become a rancher. He seems bitter and disappointed, and this taints his every action and conversation.
He tortures Rose by mocking her piano playing and making her increasingly miserable over the summer she spends on the ranch. He also observes Peter closely and tries to get closer to him. Throughout the film, I felt on edge about what his designs and intentions were on the young boy. Peter is studying medicine at university like his late father before him, but it’s clear that there’s more to him than meets the eye, too. Despite his gentle nature and mildness, he has a cold streak that shows when you least expect it. The warning of this film is to not judge a book by its cover and to look beyond surface-level before forming opinions of someone.
Even for those unfamiliar with Campion’s style (many will know her from The Piano), it’s easy to enjoy this one. It lacks the pomp and ceremony of other festival features and Westerns, but rather draws little attention to itself.
Critics have often remarked that Campion is a noir director, and some of the sensibilities of a noir do make themselves apparent here. We have shots that play with chiaroscuro lighting, an enigmatic lead in Cumberbatch with his unclear motives and distance from others. Whether or not we can ascribe a label like femme fatale to Dunst’s Rose is up for debate, but it’s also true we have elements of the amoral buried deep within other characters, who may initially just appear to be an oddball in the ultra-masculine world of turn-of-the-century ranching.
It’s not easy to summarise a film as complex and delicate as this one, but suffice to say it recognises different modes of masculinity in its three very different leads: Phil’s is one of sun-hardened, stolid-as-the-landscape stoicism. His very guarded nature projects an air of machismo bravado in order to shield a more fragile interior. By contrast, George is kind-hearted and wishes to provide for his new family and afford them every comfort, but sometimes at a personal cost as a divide springs up between him and his brother in the wake of the hasty marriage. And again, Peter is different, his soft exterior no match for a certain brutality underneath.
All three of them are brought together by Rose, who as a widow has had to act as both man and woman of the house for a long time, and her oscillation between wanting to appear strong and crumbling under the surface is both sympathetic and challenging to watch. To have created these characters with their own depth and complexity is no mean feat, and Campion has done justice to Thomas Savage’s source material.
The way the film ends is enigmatic enough, hinting that the relationships that have developed throughout the film haven’t exactly been what they seem. Dan we say that these characters have grown? Have their ideals crumbled as a result of being around others whose views and experiences are so different to their own? They may be a family by law, but the real currency of their world is trust and their language is almost one of secrets observed by others rather than of direct communication, making it all the harder to completely understand each person’s motives and desires. You almost want to watch it once for enjoyment, and another to examine every furtive look, trying to decipher what it all means.
The Power of the Dog is due for a Netflix release and you can expect it on November 17: it’s well worth seeking out.