Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog sees the Kiwi director again displaying her under-praised and little-spoken genius.
From her early days with the forgotten masterpiece, An Angel at My Table (1990), Campion has established herself as not only one of the great female directors but one of the great directors of her generation, full stop.
With The Power of the Dog (based on a novel by Thomas Savage), Campion brings a woman’s touch to the western, removing it from its masculine mythos and, by the process, freeing the genre of its conventions. The Power of the Dog might best be called a psychological western. If it can be called a pure western, then it is one without a single gun, a fight scene, or a stampede.
Campion goes further, freeing the audience of the illusion that they can know precisely what will happen at any moment in the movie. Just when we think the tension has tightened to the point that characters will burst, confronting one another, screaming, shouting, coming to blows, giving long, passioned speeches, Campion holds off and allows just a little of the tension to evaporate.
The rolling hills, forested valleys, and beautiful vistas of Montana (actually New Zealand) play contrast to the ugliness and claustrophobia of the story and the psychopathy of Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch). The simple act of whistling Strauss’ Radetzky March to taunt a nervous woman puts him in a special class of psychological villains.
Yet Phil is not the devil we might first judge him to be. Because he is, by the time the film has ended, and we have had time to digest, a far more interesting and empathy-inducing character than any other in the movie. Coming close, though, is Peter, played with Oedipal subtlety by Kodi Smit-McPhee, and brought out of his shell by Phil, allowing the audience to see the similarities between the two men and their ability to see what others cannot, their stoicism in the face of death.
Phil, aware of the times, builds a shell of affected manliness around himself while Peter, naïve about his sexuality, acts effeminate not because he wishes to express himself but because he knows no other way to be. Phil knows that this won’t serve him well in 1925 Montana. He lectures him not to let his mother make him a sissy.
In the end, The Power of the Dog reminds us that there are things stronger than the strongest man and that those things will continue to bring even the most stoic to their knees. The world is uncaring, but we should try to understand what makes each person the way they are.
Kirsten Dunst and Benedict Cumberbatch were so into their characters that they did not speak to each other during filming.