The Power Of The Dog ****
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee
Director: Jane Campion
Jane Campion (The Piano, Bright Star) isn’t the obvious choice to direct a western, but this isn’t your standard guns-blazing-cowboy-on-an-open-plain western. The genre has evolved a lot since its 50s heyday into something much more subtle, where the drama comes from its atmosphere and the hardened characters forced to scrape a living from the harsh soil. And who better to direct an atmospheric period piece than Campion? And this might be her magnum opus.
Phil Burbank (Cumberbatch - The Imitation Game, 12 Years A Slave) is a ranch owner crossing the Montana countryside with his brother George (Plemons - Breaking Bad, The Irishman) on a cattle drive. When they stop at a remote inn, their men overrun the property, much to the consternation of its widowed proprietress (Dunst - Melancholia, Marie Antoinette). Her son Peter (Smit-McPhee - Let Me In, The Road) endures their derision for his effeminacy, but when she and George are hurriedly wed, Phil begins to soften toward the younger man who harbours a very similar secret to his own.
A restrained and subtle film, the drama is all etched into the subtext, which layers rich characterisation over the top of this simple life anchored on a patch of wilderness. The sheer scale of the mountains around them dwarf these little people, with luscious cinematography capturing the grandeur of a vast and mysterious landscape. And though Phil appears to control everything these people do, he has no power over the majestic and cruel forces of nature that dominates the way they live.
Cumberbatch gives a strikingly contemptible performance as this manipulative rancher, but as he softens and we see the humanity beneath his iron facade, we warm to a man whose behaviour is often repugnant. His developing relationship with Peter is unsettling at times, with their large age gap and the latter’s tendency to dissect animals in his bedroom making for a disparate pairing. Make no mistake, there is little that’s romantic about this film, with talk of sexuality reserved fo masturbation and a lot of implication. Though much is made of Peter’s delicate disposition, he is just as damaged and world-hardened as Phil and Kodi Smit-McPhee is perfectly cast in this role; tall, willowy and gaunt, ethereal and drawn.
Dunst also delivers an outstanding performance, mechanically descending into nonchalant alcoholism as her world deteriorates around her. Her flushed-faced indignance gives way to intoxicated frustration, even though her new husband treats her like a queen. Might the Oscars come knocking for Dunst, Cumberbatch and Campion? Or maybe even all three. Because this is sure to be a big awards player next year.
Though a good half-hour longer than it needs to be, this atmospheric and nuanced western finds the grim reality of the 1920s mid-west. And with a clutch of outstanding performances, it feels authentically harrowing, even though its plot is markedly unsensational. Though decidedly not a fun film, you’ll find yourself magnetised by these damaged and damaging country folk living grim lives in the shadow of vast but stunning mountains. It’s beautiful, for sure, but also incredibly grim.
UK Release: Out now on Netflix.