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THE POWER OF THE DOG

JANE CAMPION RETURNS WITH A MAGNIFICENT EPIC ON THE HUMAN HEART

SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW
LATEST REVIEWS
By Daniel Lammin
2nd November 2021

We've waited more than a decade for Jane Campion to return to our screens. One of those truly remarkable directors for whom every film is an event, her work feelw like watching someone crack open the human heart open like a pomegranate - exquisite and violent and messy and deeply satisfying. Her work on television with 'Top of the Lake' kept audiences enraptured, but what we've missed is her particular blend of the epic and the intimate on the big screen, where the emotional ferocity can wash over us. Now our thirst can be quenched. Jane Campion has returned with her latest film 'The Power of the Dog', and it is unquestionably worth the wait.

The Burbank brothers Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch, 'The Imitation Game') and George (Jesse Plemons, 'The Master') maintain their sprawling family ranch in Montana in 1925. While George is gentle and open, Phil is mysterious and closed-off, defiantly masculine, prone to moments of scathing cruelty. When George marries unassuming widow Rose (Kirsten Dunst, 'The Beguiled'), he brings her to live on the ranch, but while Rose tries her hardest to find her place, her delicate heart cannot take the brute force of Phil, who makes it abundantly clear that Rose is not at all welcome. Caught in the middle is Rose's unusual son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee, 'Slow West'), a young man so completely out of place on the ranch. At first, Peter becomes a new target for Phil's viciousness, but soon a close bond begins to develop between the two men based on a shared unspoken secret - but it's a bond that threatens to spin Rose into madness.

Based on the book by Thomas Savage and both written and directed by Campion, 'The Power of the Dog' is a deeply rich, deeply complex and thoroughly beguiling experience, inhabiting that heady space between awe, terror and ecstasy. It has an air of constant tension, as if the emotional pillars of this world may crumble at any second. On one end are Phil and Rose, totally in opposition but shockingly similar, both teetering on the edge of some sort of personal abyss and using everything they have to hold on. The film is too complex to be boiled down to a single relationship or a single idea, but the first act of the film is a sort of battle between these two broken figures, with one willing to use any method to defend their position and destroy the other. At the other end is George, the textbook definition of a "good person" to the point of detriment; he has nothing but love and encouragement for both his brother and his wife, but is too polite or perhaps too cowardly to act on their antagonism towards each other and themselves. The performance of civility is one that plays out in many forms in 'The Power of the Dog', a costume that George has been tailored for, that Rose cannot find the right fit for and that Phil outwardly, violently rejects. And at the centre of this strange family unit is Peter, someone who falls outside of the agreed-upon social norms of both polite society and working on the land. He is an observer, looking at every moment or every interaction with a scientific eye, to be studied and understood. He is placed in complete contrast to everything around him, but rather than this placing him in a similarly vulnerable position to his mother, it gives him an unexpected power over those around him. As the film progresses, Peter goes from an outlying celestial body to the centre of this solar system.

It would be easy to reduce the film down to its depiction of masculinity in combat with femininity, but this is well-titled ground for the western. What Campion adds to the mix, thanks to the queer coding of both Peter and Phil, is an unexpected and hypnotic eroticism. There's something deeply erotic about cattle and horse work. It's an awareness of the movement of bodies, both yours and others. People who work with these beasts must find a symbiosis between themselves and the animals, understanding the signals in the smallest movements of their muscles, reacting to the slightest touch. This work is that of skin and muscle and bone, primal and instinctual and almost sensual. This translates in these men with one another, an open acceptance of the male form, the movement and touch of it. The objects that occupy this world are erotic, especially that of the saddle, an object of smooth skin and hair, glorious to the touch, fashioned in a series of gentle but firm curves culminating in the almost phallic pommel or swell at the front. This is why homoeroticism has always been prevalent in westerns - its connection with the primal and the physical - but Campion's understanding goes even deeper, fascinated by this eroticism rather than seeing it as a novelty. The power of touch and smell, texture and taste run all through 'The Power of the Dog', and in the end, this language becomes central to how these characters grapple with themselves or one another. The absence of touch can be just as astounding as the arrival of it, as much a weapon to destroy as a means to console or arouse.

'The Power of the Dog' is one of those glorious films it is impossible to pin down, moving with ethereal beauty and indescribable menace. One of Campion's greatest skills as a filmmaker is how she marries the internal struggles of her characters to the landscape they must inhabit. In 'The Piano', it was the wild ferocity of the sea or the throat-gripping closeness of the jungle, but in this film, the sweeping fields of Montana have a monolithic quality, an ageless stillness rendering these figures and their dwellings as miniatures. Her work here with powerhouse cinematographer Ari Wenger ('True History of the Kelly Gang', 'Lady Macbeth') recalls the legendary psychological beauty of the landscapes in Terrence Malick's/a> 'Days of Heaven' (1978), shots of farm estates dotted amongst brown plains and undulating hills like ships lost on an endless sea. What moves through the hearts of Phil, Rose and Peter is endless, almost impossible to comprehend, and the sheer size of the land on which they reside speaks to this, either offering a solace from the chaos or an emptiness that may swallow them alive. Each frame of 'The Power of the Dog' is worthy of the cinema screen on which it is projected, but Campion is not a filmmaker who uses beauty without cause. In all of her films - as in this one - beauty and awe are the means through which we may understand the beauty and awe within ourselves.

This is also a film haunted by the ghosts of men who we never meet, the lost husband of Rose and father of Peter, and the father figure and lover of Phil - an older ranch cowboy named Bronco Henry. Rose and Peter seek understanding and deliverance from their loss, a need to move on and begin anew, but loss is a shard of longing in Phil's heart. His rejection of the world may be in retaliation to this loss, leaving him with a pain he not only can't understand but can't even express. The ghost of his lover inhabits objects rather than words, carefully maintained mementos and rituals as unspoken attempts to keep what Phil has of this man and relationship alive. This is such a familiar trope in cinema of queer longing, but we often see these icons at the moment of ascension. Phil's icons have the weight of years, of a longing that cannot be satisfied and a secret than cannot ever be spoken. He has become so used to this ritual that he doesn't know of any other way to exist.

This forms the basis for his war with Rose, one he undertakes with shocking and unrelenting cruelty. Where Phil is a knotted rope of spite and violent masculinity, Rose enters this new world with an openness and generosity that leaves her vulnerable to attack. Watching her slow-motion collapse through the film is wholly devastating, especially when the men around her simply leave her behind in her misery. Despite the fact that she has consistently delivered extraordinary performances across her entire career, it always feels like we underestimate Kirsten Dunst, but her work here with Campion surely solidifies her as one of the best actors of her generation. Her performance is wholly devastating in its quiet desperation, so impossibly detailed and deeply truthful. As heartbreaking as Phil ultimately is (and this is certainly Benedict Cumberbatch's best performance to date), it's impossible to fall entirely on his side when the blows her delivers to Rose land with such brutal precision. In many ways, Rose is the emotional heart of this film, if only because she is the only character willing to engage with her emotions.

Campion asks so much of her cast, but it is a credit to her genius that she leads them into difficult territory with such assurance. Cumberbatch has rarely been this menacing or this devastating, balancing on the tricky knife's edge of Phil's difficult masculinity. Like Dunst, he finds a specificity in movement and space, in his case controlling his energy carefully so that he may erupt at any moment. By contrast, Kodi Smit-McPhee is almost entirely mystery as Peter, a stillness and unnerving calm to Phil's bombast. Looking into the older man's eyes reveals anger and pain, but what we see in Peter's is harder to define, almost as if the intensity of his gaze is stripping your armour away layer by layer. His power is in his stillness, his otherness, a power he will use to bring others into him and do as he must to help his family survive. Holding this fractured family together is the gentle touch of Jesse Plemons as George. Plemons is such a beautifully tender performer, and he brings so much of this tenderness to the character. He is genuine but hapless, concerned with the welfare of others but only through his own limited understanding of human relationships. George is the tether holding Rose and Phil to the ground, but to their detriment, he has no awareness of this.

The title 'The Power of the Dog' is a reference to a biblical psalm, describing a passion that is, as Campion puts it, "an animal-inspired instinct that's sexual and vicious and strong and dangerous." That animalistic passion runs through every fibre of this remarkable film, a blinding blend of the cinematic and the literary that slowly and carefully traps you in its net. Jane Campion is a master at understanding the ever-changing tides of human needs and desires, and here those tides tumble these characters like pebbles, crashing against one another with a sharp and deadly crack. I've found myself haunted by this film since watching it, my brain mulling over its heady textures and shallow breaths, its desperate longing and its unexpected eroticism. The more time passes, the more I find myself falling under its spell and longing to return to it. Just as expected, Jane Campion has delivered one of the finest films of the year.

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