The Power of the Dog (2021)
Words by May Garland
The Power of the Dog (2021)
Jane Campion’s triumphant adaptation of Thomas Savage’s novel, ‘The Power Of The Dog’, transports us to the arid wilderness of 1920’s Montana (filmed in New Zealand) with cowboys, water-parched deserts and colossal mountain ranges looming in the distance. The beguiling and rugged Phil Burback (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) is as hostile as the landscape he roams. His malicious and brutish nature taunts his new sister-in-law, Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst) and her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) but the plot deviates from the typical Western tropes and probes deeper into themes of depression, alcoholism, masculinity and dysfunctional relationships.
Phil and George (Jesse Plemons) take over the running of a profitable ranch and both could not be more different from each other. George, or “fatso” as his brother likes to taunt him, sports smart clothes and a gentle demeanour, whilst Phil embraces the wild west in his mud-splattered denim. Cumberbatch, known best for his role as the intellectual and sociopathic detective, Sherlock Holmes, trades in this polished English conduct for cowboy lingo, adopting a look that recalls a chain-smoking Clint Eastwood. Although Phil appears hostile, he is also emotionally reliant on the bond of brotherhood and resents George’s choice to marry the former cinema pianist and café owner, Rose. We must applaud Dunst’s versatility as an actor for how Rose differs from her previous roles as the courageous Mary Jane in Spider-Man or the lavishly extravagant and fabulous Marie Antoinette (2006). Dunst expertly shows the fragility of the widow as she descends into depression and alcoholism.
After sufficiently wounding the new addition to the family, Phil then turns to Peter and uses homophobic slurs to mock Peter’s feminine nature and dextrous skill with paper flower making, which he maliciously decides to set on fire to light his cigarette. It is in these moments we see the ugliest sides of hyper-masculinity and get an insight into rigid social codes and rejection of homosexuality in this period.
Strangely, Phil forgets his vendetta as he suddenly decides to befriend Peter after an awkward encounter at the lake. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, we get a full steamy scene of Cumberbatch masturbating on a riverbank and then bathing naked in a lake, caught by Peter’s startled eyes. After this moment, Phil seems to summon a kindness toward Peter, perhaps he has found a sudden paternal instinct or is using this as another attempt to torture Rose or, as I suspect, has repressed desires of homosexuality.
Later, Phil and Peter go off together to learn the ways of ranch life. Rose echoes our own suspicions at their sudden friendship and staggers after them to prevent this surprising friendship. The sudden fondness Phil has for Peter is never fully explained, but the candlelit conversation exposing the vulnerability of Phil, the lingering glances and the subtle sexual digressions in their conversation hint towards something more than just a bromance. The tension is palpable when we see Peter take a slow drag of the cigarette, lean close and hand it to Phil. It feels as if we are intruders, watching these men on the brink of intimacy. Campion’s cunning direction leaves these clues and then swiftly changes the shot back to the distant mountains and cattle butting.
The film possesses a vintage edge from the yellow tinge of the dusty environment and shadowed, gothic buildings accompanied by occasionally tuneful string music that suddenly swells into clashing notes that reflect the tension between the characters. Musical discord is a theme that runs throughout and adds to the unsettling nature of the film. Rose, the ex-pianist, struggles with stage fright and hits jarring notes on the piano, whereas the musically gifted Phil belittles her attempts with his perfect, tuneful version of the same melody on his banjo to further aggravate Rose’s humiliation. Despite the malevolent intent, Cumberbatch’s jovial Banjo tunes add a much-needed and light-hearted lift to the otherwise dark and mysterious psychodrama.
The turbulent music and soundtrack perfectly echo the complex emotions of desire, hatred, despair and domination that the movie interacts with. In the end, we see a twisted rope lying abandoned in the yard. An object that once symbolised friendship and was a gift for Peter now appears more sinister when we learn it was weaved from poisoned hides from an anthrax-diseased cow. Peter smirks as the antagonist to his mother’s happiness now lies cold in a coffin from touching the poisoned rope.
His voiceover reads prominent lines from the book he holds: “deliver my soul from the sword, my darling from the power of the dog”. The words hang ominously in the air as the film cuts to the end credits.