IT ISN’T EVERY day that you get to see a film which has the gravitas of the bible, the sinister undertones and dark wit of Quentin Tarantino’s work and the timelessness and devastating subtlety of a classic of the ilk of work by Ernest Hemingway. In Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, you will find resonances of all these giants. And yet, this recent Netflix release has a voice of its own and a whole litany of values about toxic masculinity which gives it relevance and muscle.
With Benedict Cumberbatch as Phil Burland in the lead, a rancher with small tolerance for social filters and a bullying tongue, this cowboy film set in 1925, Montana, is clean of any of the cliches which come with the genre. And in doing so, the creators of the work repurpose the context and the narrative with an elegance that holds you tight. It’s a tale which secretes its denouement through threads introduced in the first few scenes, which are plaited carefully into a closure that is shocking, yet satisfying. It’s a satisfaction you experience that is as much about the horrifying vindication of a volte face, as it is about eyes for eyes and teeth for teeth.
Pulling on a quote from the book of Psalms, and thrust against tricks of the eye in the shadows cast by a range of hills, the work has the kind of undercurrents that may encourage you to leap for the book upon which it is based, and yet, it is not only the narrative here, which compels you. It’s the way in which the whole piece has been put together. The cinematography, for one thing, comes with the kind of sure hand that knows how to film cattle and landscapes with earth-shattering wisdom. And the music and soundtrack – the use of strings and the peculiar crickety noise of a comb being strummed – under the playing out of the tale – is devastating in its beauty and acuity.
The yarn is woven in self-contained chapters, and it flows through innuendo and nuance, alcohol abuse, flowers of paper and the shiveringly unspoken with beguilingly simply clarity. And over and above a tale of how men are, in a world where they are given sanction to be however they want to, there is an undercurrent that gives voice to the person who does not comply with those unspoken rules and permissions granted in the name of heteronormativity. And, of course, the casualties that come of this. The casting of Australian actor, Kodi Smit-McPhee, in the role of Peter, lends the work its overwhelmingly fine edge that will keep you transfixed, from the first paper fringes he makes until the closing credits.
The Power of the Dog is one of those films that will grasp this era of film watchers, with its rich and difficult universal truths about gender. But also, it is a work that lends the notion of the marriage of true creative minds in collaboration, supreme validity. In short, this is not an easy watch, but it is an utterly flawless production worthy of the focus of your energy.
- The Power of the Dog is directed by Jane Campion and features a cast headed by Stephen Bain, Adam Beach, Alison Bruce, Eddie Campbell, Keith Carradine, Peter Carroll, Daniel Cleary, Alice May Connolly, Frances Conroy, Benedict Cumberbatch, David Denis, Jacque Drew, Kirsten Dunst, Alice Englert, Richard Falkner, Julie Forsyth, Aislinn Furlong, Ian Harcourt, Cohen Holloway, Ella Hope-Higginson, Sean Keenan, Vadim Ledogorov, Geneviève Lemon, David T Lim, Stephen Lovatt, George Mason, Max Mata, Ramontay McConnell, Thomasin McKenzie, Piimio Mei, Josh Owen, Yvette Parsons, Jesse Plemons, Edith Poor, Kenneth Radley, Yvette Reid, Alistair Sewell, Bryony Skillington, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Maeson Stone Skuggedal, Tatum Warren-Ngata and Karl Willetts. It is written by Jane Campion, based on the eponymous novel by Thomas Savage. Produced by Jane Campion, Iain Canning, Roger Frappier, Tanya Seghatchian and Emile Sherman, it features creative input by Jonny Greenwood (music), Ari Wegner (cinematography), Peter Sciberras (editing), Nikki Barrett, Tina Cleary, Carmen Cuba and Nina Gold (casting), Grant Major (production design) and Kirsty Cameron (costume design). Release date on Netflix: 11 November 2021.