There is something beautifully melancholic about the vast expanses of land picturised in Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog. While it is understandable that the arid deserts leave us craving for an oasis of sorts. Even that respite, which comes in the form of an almost Eden-like lush green forest with a babbling brook, only adds to the melancholy. In fact, The Power of the Dog is a film that thrives on being pensive. Every character is in a constant state of internalisation, and never once says what they want to say. Every character is a ticking time bomb, and the anticipation of a breakdown is one of the primary driving factors of Jane’s riveting tale of toxic masculinity based on the book of the same name by Thomas Savage.
It is Montana in the 1920s. Brothers Phil Burbank (a sensational Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Burbank (a restrained Jesse Plemons) own a ranch. While Phil is the “man” the society wants him to be, George is the “man” he wants to be. Phil is brash and rude yet smart and resourceful. George is definitely a soft-spoken and kind-hearted man who wants to fit into an evolving world that is leaving behind the cowboys. On the surface, it might seem Phil is the “alpha” among the brothers, as his voice reeks of derision whenever he refers to his younger brother.
However, Jane drops enough hints at how within the confines of the Burbank home, Phil is the needier of the brothers. And this neediness is most pronounced when George brings home Rose (a brilliant Kirsten Dunst), and Phil’s response is almost like our present-day teenagers reacting to their single parent’s new partners. Phil throws a fit because he sees her as a threat, and he then goes out of his way to make Rose an emotional wreck. And this is when we see George isn’t really as “evolved” as the world thinks him to be.
He is either oblivious to Rose’s predicament or looks the other way to avoid conflict with his brother. While we observe Phil’s satisfaction in seeing Rose suffer, we don’t really see George even remotely feeling bad. The only one who is remotely concerned about her downward spiral is her son Peter (a chillingly effective Kodi Smit-McPhee).
It is through Peter that the carefully constructed world of Phil unravels in front of our eyes. Their worlds are intertwined right from the moment Phil, for a brief moment lets his guard down to admire Peter’s paper flowers. This scene has a neat little connection to a cowhide rope made by Phil for Peter in the latter portions of the film. In fact, Jane’s writing is filled with such smart callbacks that a film that entirely stays in the dysfunctional family drama genre seamlessly steps into thriller territory as the credits roll.
Earlier, in Westerns, we often saw the good, bad, and ugly of machismo being elevated as aspirational traits. But with evolving filmmakers and cinema, we are seeing the notions of masculinity being put under the microscope. These films lead to an introspection of sorts. In The Power of the Dog, the more we are acquainted with the world of Phil and Peter, the more our ideas about them and the exhibition of masculinity are deconstructed. We are aided in this process through Jane’s vision and Ari Wegner’s compelling cinematography. Take, for instance, the scene where Phil is pleasuring himself near a stream. Or the scenes where the nude cowboys are frolicking in a river.
The gaze, the angles, the camera movement is refreshing, and expertly navigate the thin line between aesthetic and voyeurism. And the gloves come off in a bull castration scene where the makers paint a grim picture of what it takes for a guy like Phil to stand out as an alpha among his peers. This sequence is raw and grotesque but it is impossible to take our eyes away from what’s unfolding because of a towering performance from Benedict Cumberbatch.
Be it his wistful reminiscence of the times he spent with his mentor Bronco Henry, his act of defiance against the rules laid by his parents, his inability to come to terms with the separation from his brother, the moments he spends with his lonesome self, him realising his first streak of happiness in years together, Benedict Cumberbatch delivers one of his finest performances to date. In fact, The Power of the Dog is powered by some of the best performances of its leads. While Benedict’s froth-in-the-mouth angry outbursts are gripping, it is his vulnerability that adds layers to a role that might seem overly one-note at first glance.
The same holds good for Kodi Smit-McPhee’s Peter. Despite being ridiculed for his artistic sensibilities and lack of “manly” attributes, the evolution of Peter, and his subsequent relationship with Phil sets the tone for the film. While Rose isn’t saddled with a lot of dialogues, her character arc that begins as a defiant mom and almost ends up as a cowering woman of the ranch with a sincere hope at redemption might have been less effective in the hands of a lesser actor. Kirsten’s eyes, her furtive glances, her timid responses, her staggering body language, and the half-smiles paint Rose as the perfectly conflicted character she is. Kirsten delivers a masterclass in restraint.
Another masterclass in The Power of the Dog is the music by Jonny Greenwood. The piece when Rose realises she can one-up Phil. The tune when Phil finds Peter to be the companion he so craved. The music when we see Phil finally being himself. If Ari anchors Jane’s vision, Jonny mounts it in the grandest of scales and makes The Power of the Dog an epic but wonderfully understated film that explores an all-important question -- What does it mean to be a man in a man’s world?
The Power of the Dog
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Jesse Plemons
Direction: Jane Campion