Film Review: The Power of the Dog (Jane Campion, 2021)

Jane Campion, the first woman to win the Palme d'Or at Cannes and just the second female director to be nominated for the Academy Award (accomplishing both of these feats with 1993's The Piano) is finally back on the big screen. Her first feature film in twelve years (2009's Bright Star was her last) Campion is in probably the best form of her life. The Power of the Dog is an astonishingly brilliant film, and probably the filmmaker's best film, or at least equal to the brilliant aforementioned The Piano.

The film, adapted by Campion from Thomas Savage's novel, takes place in 1925 Montana and is the story of wealthy ranch owner brothers Phil & George Burbank who meet suicide widow Rose and her effeminate son Peter. Phil, played with the greatest aplomb by Benedict Cumberbatch, is the brutal and broken brother, while George, played with a quiet sincerity by Jesse Plemons, is the kind-hearted brother. When they first meet Rose and Peter, played by  Kirsten Dunst and Kodi Smit-McPhee, while stopping at their inn during a cattle drive, Phil is brutish and mocks Peter for his fey ways and lisp. George, on the other hand, is taken with Rose, and ends up marrying her and moving her onto their ranch. Phil considers her a gold-digger and takes every opportunity to belittle her. So much so that it drives the once teetotaling Rose to the bottle. And then another bottle and another one and so on and so on and so on. Meanwhile, Peter is regularly mocked by Phil and the cattle hands, although it seems as if Peter doesn't even notice as he lives in his own dream world. 

As the film moves forward, Dunst's Rose becomes more and more unstable, allowing the actress to spread her wings more than she ever has before, handing in what may well be the best performance of her career. Meanwhile Phil and Peter begin to bond. The volatile nature between these two characters gives every one of their scenes together a palpable tension. But it goes much further than that as the story takes on a more and more homoerotic nature as it explores the strange yet alluring dichotomy between these two vastly different characters. And as darkly brilliant as Cumberbatch is here, and his performance reminds one of Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will be Blood, Smit-McPhee manages to hold his own at each turn. And just wait till you see that finale. A Cain & Able story, full of blustery sound & fury, that goes in such wonderfully brutal sideways directions.

All four of these actors are at the top of their games here, as is Jane Campion, as is Ari Wegner (Lady Macbeth, True History of the Kelly Gang, and Zola, also out in theatres this year), whose succulent cinematography, reminiscent of John Ford, but with a deeper and darker edge, gives the film a dangerous feel throughout. Expect Oscar nominations for all six of these artists, as well as for Best Picture. That's it gang. See ya 'round the web.



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