Ever since Jane Campion burst onto the world stage with an Oscar for The Piano, she has shown a deft capacity to depict buttoned up, repressed emotions. The Power of the Dog, nominated for 12 Oscars, is no exception. The Netflix new-generation Western stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plomens as Montana ranching brothers Phil and George who definitely don’t discuss their feelings when George disrupts the balance of their relationship by marrying Rose (Kirsten Dunst).
It’s Campion’s first film in 12 years, after she wrote and directed two seasons of the critically acclaimed TV crime series Top of the Lake. She wrote the screenplay after falling in love with the 1967 novel of the same name by Thomas Savage, who grew up on a ranch in Montana and set all his novels there despite living on the East Coast for all of his adult life.
The Power of the Dog has been described as a Gothic western. Don’t expect gunfights and sheriffs but there is plenty of horse wrangling and a deep plunge into the exclusively masculine world world of an isolated ranch in 1925.
Brothers Phil and George seem odd candidates as ranchers. Glimpses of visits from their parents show they are clearly from a well-to-do urban family. George only sees the ranch as a business but Phil has fully embraced the cowhand’s life into which he was initiated by his mentor Bronco Bill. At one point it is revealed that he was a star student at Yale but now he revels in breaking horses, castrating cattle and washing as rarely as possible.
Phil is immediately revealed as a bully. He constantly insults his brother. When they and the cowhands drive the cattle to market, he finds a new target — the son of the widow who runs the boarding house where they stay. Phil humiliates him for trying to be too sophisticated and “sissy”.
The whole scene makes George uncomfortable, and when he finds Rose, the widow, crying, he tries to comfort her. Almost without transition, he marries her and brings her back to the ranch. Peter, the son, is dispatched to boarding school.
Inevitably Rose’s arrival upsets the balance of life on the ranch . Phil turns his cruelty onto her. She can't seem to find her place. She no longer has an occupation like cooking at the boarding house. The servants are offended by her attempts to help. George idolises her as a sophisticated woman of society and pianist, whereas she protests she was simple an accompanist for silent movies. With nothing to do and no company beyond George, she turns to drink.
When Peter arrives to spend his summer holidays on the ranch, the audience expects the worst. Yet the dynamics here are much more complex than they first appear. When Phil appears to befriend Peter it is unclear who is the predator and who the prey.
When Campion was nominated for best director Oscar for The Piano, she was the first ever woman. She didn’t win, taking the best original screenplay instead. Now she’s the only woman director to be nominated twice.
The Power of the Dog
Streaming on Netflix
KIRSTY GRIFFIN/NETFLIX © 2021
> Jane Campion Honoured at Lyon’s Lumière Festival
> On the Road: Nomadland
> Searching for Answers in the West
> Go West!