The Power of the Dog

by Toby Woollaston

Verdict: A meticulously crafted masterpiece.

The rural drama that pits soft sensitivity against stoic masculinity is perhaps one of the more recognisable sub-genres to emerge from cinema’s woke age. Think Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, or more recently, Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country. Although the location is remote, it is the immediacy of their stories that resonate and certainly, The Power of the Dog will likely garner comparisons to such films.

However this isn’t solely another postmodern cowboy movie exploring male sexuality. Rather, Kiwi directing royalty, Jane Campion, has crafted a sinister slow-burn set in 1920s Montana that is (as the title suggests) as much about power as it is about masculinity.

Campion has corralled an impressive cast and crew to create a film that like her magnum opus, The Piano, is both outwardly beautiful and deeply multilayered and complex. At its centre is a committed performance from Cumberbatch as Phil Burbank, a caustic, controlling, yet charismatic cattle farmer. When his brother (Plemons) brings into their fold a widower, Rose (Dunst, equally impressive) and her son (Smit-McPhee) the pot boils over and secrets threaten to spill out. On the surface, this may sound like an innocuous tale of domestic squabbles, but Campion’s impeccably paced screenplay ratchets tension in all the right places as she begins to explore the oppressive side of masculinity.

Cinematographer Ari Vegner (Lady Macbeth) does a remarkable job of transforming New Zealand’s landscape (where this film was shot) into the Montana backdrop. It’s not New Zealand’s first rodeo at being the backdrop to an American western. Notably, the similarly paced Slow West (which also starred Smit-McPhee) was just as visually impressive. But here, Vegner’s slow brooding camera crawls over the rolling hills and skulks around the huge gothic mansion at its centre in a way that evokes Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven. It’s spellbinding stuff.

Add to the visually sublime an intoxicating musical score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, and you have a sensory experience that demands big-screen treatment. Some might find Campion’s pace a little slow and her exposition too murky—she’s a film-maker not afraid to let her story rest on its ambiguities and trust her audience to interpret. Indeed, the more patient audience will discover a masterpiece shot among them there hills.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.