Released: 1st December
Seen: 4th December
It’s kind of strange to realise that Jane Campion hasn’t directed a feature film in over a decade. She’s one of those names that is on the shortlist of absolutely legendary directors even with only eight feature films to her name. She’s just one of those people who you expect a certain level of excellence from and with her first feature film in over a decade, The Power of the Dog, she reminds us why she is one of the great filmmakers of our time.
The Power Of The Dog is a tale of brothers. Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a cantankerous volatile man who is always clearly on the edge of exploding at someone, possibly his brother George (Jesse Plemons). Phil and George’s relationship is already strained as they live together on the Burbank ranch but it becomes even more strained when George begins a relationship with a local widow named Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), a relationship that leads to Rose moving into the Burbank ranch along with her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee)
This new situation causes Phil to become even more volatile than normal, constantly teasing Peter and psychologically tormenting Rose. The more time passes, the more Phil is able to control Peter while also driving Rose to alcoholism. Slowly things turn far worse and it becomes inevitable that something will need to be done about Phil, but who will do it?
The Power Of The Dog is that special kind of slow burn thriller that’s so perfectly formulated that you don’t even realise you’ve started tensing up until it’s too late. You know that old story about how if you slowly heat up water with a frog in it that the frog won’t notice until it’s too late? You’re the frog, the tension in the movie is the heat and by the time everything gets to a point of no return, you will be unable to move an inch because The Power Of The Dog will have completely ensnared you in its brilliance.
A large chunk of why The Power Of The Dog is so great is down to Jane Campion, who not only directed it but wrote the script and god damn did she write one hell of a script. Everything is so carefully set up and paid off you won’t even notice it’s happening, every scene is essential and even at over 2 hours there isn’t a second that could be cut. The pacing is just perfect, slow enough that you can take everything in but with enough going on that you’re never bored.
The Power Of The Dog is also just a gorgeous film to look at, filmed in the dull muted tones of the old west, the film knows exactly how to frame every shot and just where to put the right splash of colour. The vibrant greens of the grass or the haunting red of blood from a wound stands out among the dust that seems to be endlessly filling the screen.
Then there’s the acting, so perfect that I won’t be shocked if all four leads are awards nominees when the time comes, though the duo of Benedict and Kirsten are the ones who I feel probably deserve it the most. Benedict Cumberbatch in particular just kills it, creating one of the most unnerving characters you’ve ever been absolutely fascinated by. You will hate him like you’ve never hated anyone before while also feeling compelled to see just what happens to him and it’s all because of Benedict’s commanding presence that lingers even when he’s not on screen.
Kirsten Dunst is absolutely soul destroying, able to make simple moments into devastating gut punches with a single look. There’s a scene where Rose is playing a song on the piano while upstairs Phil is mockingly playing the same tune on a banjo and in anyone else’s hands that scene would be upsetting… Kirsten makes it feel like she’s being destroyed by the mockery, you can read the pain in her eyes and it’s the most harrowing thing you’ve ever seen. Truly, together those two are just glorious.
Then there’s Jesse Plemons and Kodi Smit-McPhee who admittedly have much less to do. Jesse kind of acts as an intermediary between Kirsten and Benedict but it works wonderfully and any scenes Jesse has with Kirsten are absolutely electric. Kodi probably has even less time than anyone and is mostly just a foil for Benedict to work off but he has his moments, particularly in the final sequence in the barn where… well, let’s just say the dynamic has some very interesting subtext.
The Power of The Dog is an absolute powerhouse of a film, a grand return for an iconic director who reminds us why she is a legend. This is one of those films that will pull you in slowly and take joy in devastating you and it does it so damn well. The Power Of The Dog is truly a great film, I can’t wait to be openly praising it even more in a few months when it’s an inevitable awards darling.