Monday, December 6, 2021


The Power of the Dog is a darker Western than you might think at first. It’s a psychological rope-a-dope, playing a devious slow-burn game with audience identification and the balance of power between its characters. No surprise, then, it’s the return of writer-director Jane Campion, an expert in pin-point precise emotional turns and unexpected shifts of influence in knotty interpersonal dynamics. In it you might find the dark romance and tough familial strife animating her classic 1993 feature The Piano, the fraught tremulous feelings of potential love from her swooning Keats’ picture Bright Star, the entanglement of desire and danger from her neo-noir In the Cut. But it’s also a bracing original all its own. Here she finds a gruff rancher (Benedict Cumberbatch) trotting into town with his brother (Jesse Plemons). They linger in the restaurant of a widow (Kirsten Dunst) and her awkward teen son (Kodi Smit-McPhee). With a bully’s eye, the rancher targets the boy for withering insult—the older man’s twisted smirk of superiority turned on appearance and hobbies, as well as insinuations about sexuality. Sad, then, that the four characters are drawn closer together as the boy’s mother and the rancher’s brother begin a tentative romance that brings the people together to spend a lot of time on a tract of land that’s somehow both expansive and constrained. It’s a sprawling western landscape austere in its beauty and foreboding, on which hiding away in the wild edges is possible, but somehow they keep stumbling into each other’s business anyway.

Campion, as is her wont, avoids the easy categorization of quickly understandable types and clean lines of conflict for something more intriguingly complex. Adapting a novel by Thomas Savage, the film becomes a long, slow process of being drawn into the ways in which the characters behave toward one another. I found myself leaning in, wondering just what makes these characters tick, and what it’ll mean as they unfold their complexities in conflict or conjunction with others’. There’s an inscrutable quality to the performers Campion uses well. She takes Cumberbatch’s penchant for performances that stand a little above and apart from material and makes it part of a character’s ill-fitting persona—a man overdoing it in an attempt to project the curt masculinity he wishes to inhabit. With his brusk gesticulations, uneasy gait, and his aggressively simmering verbal jabs, he’s playing an abusive part. He’s done it for so long, he hardly knows another way to be. He’s lost in himself. Smit-McPhee, on the other hand, cuts an even more peculiar figure, separating him from the others. He’s incredibly tall and almost impossibly thin, with darting eyes and half-clumsy, half-elegant movements. He’s posed and photographed at once tangible and ethereal, a curious young man who’s somehow all sharp edges and soft features. He doesn’t quite fit a type, either. Then there’s his mother, with Dunst imbuing in her the fragile trembles of vulnerability and hidden (though increasingly exposed) undercurrents of alcoholism, and her new beau, a man whom Plemons plays as a steadying influence who may or may not be the support anyone needs.

Campion stirs the suspense so patiently and perceptively, drawn along by striking natural beauty and a tense stringy Jonny Greenwood score, that it’s not until deep into the run time that I found myself aware of how gripped I was by these characters’ interactions. Here’s a movie about all sorts of sublimated undercurrents, in which a lingering gaze or a furtive gesture or an isolated private moment exposes far more than expected. It’s about how fragile confidence can be, especially as it so easily gets subverted and eroded by jealousies or passive-aggressive tussling for control or social currency. Fittingly, the movie finds the Western perched on the edge of modernity, with early model cars rattling around the dusty roads leading to the small town creaking past a slightly outdated mode of life that’s receding. Nothing lasts forever. As the shifting currents of relationships reveal new modes of life for the tightly wound people in the quartet of performances that push and pull toward an inevitable confrontation of one sort or another, the capacity for learning something new about someone remains. One extraordinary scene late in the picture finds, through a cloud of smoke casually exhaled, a vulnerable innocent suddenly, before our eyes, seductive and sinister, while a brooding brute appears suddenly vulnerable. The artifice of their posturing has burned off, if only fleetingly, leaving the rawness of the unformed and unspoken.

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