Jane Campion has heard our cries and returned with her first feature film in twelve long years. The Power of the Dog (based on a novel by Thomas Savage) gives us everything we’ve come to expect from a Campion project – gorgeous scenery, vision-clouding horniness, sensual touches, world-class actors grappling with intense emotion, a trademark offbeat humor – and even more. It felt amazing to see a beautiful film in an era where many new projects are lit like a Walmart. Campion and cinematographer Ari Wegner make the wide expanses of Montana (well, New Zealand) appear simultaneously endless and claustrophobic. Benedict Cumberbatch and Kirsten Dunst give sublime performances in roles far more complex than they seem. Like the thornier of Campion’s filmography, some viewers may find the tone off-putting or even hostile, but those who trust are treated to a haunting tale of the ghosts we try to leave in the past but to whom we remain forever devoted.
Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Phil Burbank, a nasty blowhard of a ranch owner in 1925 Montana. He lives on his land with younger brother George (Jesse Plemons), frequently the butt of his jokes among the ranchhands. George meets the recently widowed Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst) working at the town’s hotel and starts a gentle romance. Phil is not pleased, as he has marked Rose’s son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as a nancy, taunting him at dinner for his lisp and beautifully crafted paper flowers. Unfortunately for… well, everyone… Phil cannot stop his brother from marrying Rose and bringing her to live on their ranch. Phil decides to torment Rose at any and every occasion, finding ways to make the newlyweds’ lives a waking hell.
Rose descends into alcoholism, hanging on by a thread when Peter arrives on school break. Phil, of course, tortures the boy with abandon, but things start to change when Peter witnesses one of Phil’s private rituals. We watch this wretched man start to view Peter as something other than an object of disgust, a turn masterfully handled by Cumberbatch. Rose is not so ready to forgive, though her own issues keep her from separating Phil and Peter as they grow even closer. George, meanwhile, is off on business, meaning Plemons is missing from much of the film’s midsection, a great disappointment but understandable for how the story develops.
Though I’m hesitant to say more regarding the plot, just know that Campion has not lost a single bit of her edge. If there is justice in the film world, this will be a major awards focus, especially thanks to the work from Dunst and Cumberbatch. I certainly hope we needn’t spend another decade longing for Campion’s follow-up, but The Power of the Dog proves that any wait is worthwhile.
The Power of the Dog
Dir. Jane Campion
Part of the 59th New York Film Festival – click here to follow the Hassle’s continuing coverage!
Streaming 11/17 on Netflix
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