The Power of the Dog

Review by Rich Cline | 4.5/5   MUST must see SEE

The Power of the Dog
dir-scr Jane Campion
prd Jane Campion, Iain Canning, Roger Frappier, Tanya Seghatchian, Emile Sherman
with Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Thomasin McKenzie, Frances Conroy, Keith Carradine, Alison Bruce, Peter Carroll, Genevieve Lemon, Sean Keenan, Ramontay McConnell
release US 17.Nov.21,
NZ/UK 1.Dec.21
21/New Zealand 2h06

dunst plemons smit-mcphee
london film fest

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cumberbatch and smit-mcphee
Writer-director Jane Campion masterfully combines spectacular landscapes with complex internal journeys in this provocative Western set in 1925 Montana (which is beautifully played by New Zealand). A collection of characters and connections are delicately played to pull the audience into an intriguing web of desire, expectation and legacy. And while much of the big emotion is under the surface, the film still packs a vivid punch.
Salty cowboy Phil (Cumberbatch) runs a cattle ranch with his soft-spoken brother George (Plemons), who marries widowed hotelier Rose (Dunst) and brings her to live in their ranchhouse. Phil's relentless teasing and aggressions drive Rose to drink, and when her teen son Peter (Smit-McPhee) arrives for the summer she worries for his safety, especially since Phil relentlessly taunts him over his wispy appearance and artful demeanour. Initially leery, Peter is drawn in as Phil teaches him horse-riding and other skills. And he may not be as naive about Phil's secret as he seems to be.
Yes, there's a strong gay subtext running through the entire film, as Phil's mentorship of Peter echoes his own education from his beloved late idol Bronco Henry. But while Peter is openly aware of his own feelings, Phil is still resolutely repressed. Campion uses this to draw out earthy humour and some properly brittle tension as the narrative builds. And cinematographer Ari Wegner gloriously captures both the epic landscapes and intimate details, which mix together to create a compelling, powerfully inventive exploration of masculinity.

Cumberbatch is magnetic as a man who enjoys stirring trouble, quickly locating people's weaknesses and then exploiting them mercilessly. So it's riveting to see him repeatedly surprised by Peter, played with a remarkable stillness by Smit-McPhee as a curious young man who isn't as fragile as he seems. Dunst and Plemons are also excellent in textured roles as people who prefer to remain quietly in the margins. Their romance gives the film a sweet centre, adding context to Phil's and Peter's odysseys.

Campion weaves these story strands together beautifully, never overtly commenting on the pungent themes. But they're always present in the subtext, driving everything that happens. This approach demands attention and involvement from the viewer; watching passively would be pointless. Indeed, there are staggering depths in this story that echo the Big Sky imagery, uprooting a range of bigotries on several levels. This is a film that haunts us with its suggestions. It leaves us shaken and perhaps even electrified.

cert 15 themes, language, violence 11.Oct.21 lff

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© 2021 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall