Jane Campion has written and directed some memorable movies, including The Piano (1993).
Now she has added to her already impressive repertoire with an early Oscar contender in The Power of the Dog.
It is characterised by a sensitive and affecting storyline, a litany of memorable performances (headlined by Benedict Cumberbatch) and breathtaking cinematography.
Set in Montana in the 1920s, it centres around two successful ranchers … brothers.
Phil Burbank (Cumberbatch) is raw and uncouth. He strikes fear into others. George Burbank (Jesse Plemons) is quiet and respectful … a sensitive soul. The pair was mentored by a man named Bronco Henry, whom Phil regarded as his best friend.
Phil and George have been riding alongside each another for 25 years. Over that time, they have also slept in the same room.
One day they and their ranch hands drive a large herd of cattle. Along the way, they stop in at a restaurant operated by widower Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst).
She has a sensitive and creative son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who aspires to be a surgeon, following in the footsteps of his father, who was a doctor.
Phil Burbank makes fun of him, which leaves Rose in tears. Sensitive to the situation, George is out to make amends and, before you know it, the pair is married.
From the get-go, Phil makes it crystal clear that he isn’t happy with the situation. It appears that he resents his brother being pulled away from him. Phil makes things particularly uncomfortable for Rose, who turns to the bottle.
Her son, the most awkward Peter, is very much a fish out of water, until Phil does an about face and decides to take him under his wing, much to Rose’s chagrin.
The title is drawn from a bible passage and is a parallel to the inherent strength of Phil … and, arguably, Peter.
Campion weaves her considerable talent with dexterity, juxtaposing the characters, setting up confrontations.
Cumberbatch gives a great performance, channeling the two sides of Phil’s character through expression, as much as through dialogue.
Plemons plays against type, displaying grace and poise.
Dunst transitions her character from in control to out of control and we watch on unable to prevent the disintegration of spirit.
Smit-McPhee brings an effeminate edge to his portrayal of a young man with a lot of growing up to do.
The Power of the Dog is a film to savour. It doesn’t move at pace, but works away at your psyche. It has extraordinary beauty alongside devastation and despair.
Its homoerotic edge reminded me of Academy Award winner Brokeback Mountain, though sexuality is handled more delicately here.
Cinematographer Ari Wegner makes the most of the opportunity given to him. He has the gift of being able to turn even dry grassland into a scene of special significance, which continues to resonate long after you exit the cinema.
The Power of the Dog is so magnificently crafted and realised I can’t wait to see it a second time.
Rated M, it scores a 9 out of 10.