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The actor is the weakest link in Jane Campion's study of toxic masculinity on the frontier
THE POWER OF THE DOG (Jane Campion). 128 minutes. In theatres Wednesday (November 17) and available to stream on Netflix Canada December 1. Rating: NNN
The Power Of The Dog is a movie about the mythology of the American frontier and the way the stories men told each other about their brave conquest of the untamed land poisoned the future. History is written by the victors, as the saying goes, and these men – always men, always white, always justifying their violence with God or morality or manifest destiny or whatever springs to mind – wrote themselves a tale of powerful righteousness civilizing the savages, cleansing away anything that didn’t fit the template.
Most cowboys were Black; that’s why they were called “boys.” They got lost on the way to the adventure magazines of the 1900s, which gave way to the rip-roarin’ Republic serials of the 30s and 40s, and so on and so forth. You wonder why there are so many revisionist Westerns these days; well, there’s a lot of history that needs revising.
That brings us to Jane Campion’s adaptation of Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel, which is itself a little too old-school for the present day. Savage wrote about traditionalists and progressives learning to coexist, however ruefully, in the evolving West. Campion’s film is about what happens as the traditionalists come to realize their rule is ending.
The film is set on a cattle ranch in rural Montana in 1925. Phil and George Burbank have been running it ever since their father died, and they’re doing well enough to employ a dozen men or more at any given time. Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch), the reedy, swaggering elder brother, sees the bookish George (Jesse Plemons) as his inferior, insulting his weight and his education at every opportunity.
It’s clear to us that George’s savvy has kept the farm afloat through some rough patches. It’s also clear that Phil would rather castrate himself than acknowledge this. Phil credits himself – and occasionally his late mentor Bronco Henry – for the Burbank ranch’s every success, the better to build his cult of masculinity among the cowhands. And when George weds the kindly widow Rose (Kirsten Dunst), moving her and her college-age son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) onto the ranch… well, that is a threat to Phil’s rule that he simply cannot countenance.
Phil starts to pick away at Rose – in small ways, mind you, but his abuse is unrelenting. He extends his campaign to Peter, who is delicate and artistic and therefore Phil’s natural enemy; George sees it all, and prefers not to address any of it. His brother is a cowboy; George is cowed.
Campion frames it all against the big skies and wide brush of her native New Zealand, which passes convincingly for the Montana plain. She and cinematographer Ari Wegner repeatedly use the abundance of space to isolate the actors, framing them against nothing but air, dirt and the occasional cow. They create a sense of claustrophobic oppression before we ever get indoors: there is no escape from this place, and there is no escape from Phil. Of course, Phil can’t even escape himself.
Having established her thesis, Campion circles it for an hour or so, trapping Rose on the ranch with the petty, tyrannical Phil as George travels into town for business. It seems he goes a lot more often than necessary, and his insistence that Rose and Peter stay on the ranch and bring Phil around with kindness feels less like a decent man trying to make peace than the capitulation of a coward. Rose despairs; Peter decides to reach out to his tormentor, expressing an interest in learning the lasso. And Phil decides he will teach him, which makes everyone clench up: knowing what we know of Phil and his world, there is absolutely no way any of this can end well.
It’s here that I have to be That Guy, and point out that Benedict Cumberbatch is not the best choice for the role of Phil Burbank. He still can’t do an American accent without pitching his voice up an octave, and the twang he adds here unbalances him even further, almost keying us into the affectation of it all. It’s as though Phil is putting on his own performance of swinging-dick machismo, and while that may be intentional, it breaks the reality of the film; it feels increasingly impossible that we’re the only ones able to see through this posturing martinet.
The rest of the cast is doing sterling work, though. Plemons recedes into himself in a genuinely tragic way, showing us how George uses his bulk as emotional armour against Phil’s taunts – and how he’s decent to everyone, but only shares his capacity for kindness with Rose and Peter. Smit-McPhee does equally impressive body work, using his long frame to suggest a fragile, alien presence that Phil is compelled to destroy. But Campion keeps drawing quick comparisons between Smit-McPhee and Cumberbatch, who resemble one another physically; does Phil see himself in the awkward boy?
Dunst packs a lifetime of hurt into a handful of moments as Rose, but she’s pushed further and further away from the centre of this story as The Power Of The Dog goes on. Campion is more interested in dissecting the toxic construction of Phil’s identity, but there’s a more intensely felt version of this film that follows Rose’s perspective as she collapses under the twin weights of isolation and toxic masculinity.
Of course, Campion told that story three decades ago, when she made The Piano. And maybe that’s why, for all the praise heaped on this film at TIFF and elsewhere, I found The Power Of The Dog a little less than a masterwork. Campion is a brilliant filmmaker, and she tells her story with merciless competence. But she’s been here before.
Maybe that’s the point: Campion hasn’t directed a feature since 2009’s beautiful, tragic Bright Star, and I can’t blame her for wanting to play to her strengths on this one. Let’s take it as a reassertion of her bona fides, and hope she blazes new territory on her next project.
Read NOW’s interview with The Power Of The Dog’s Kirsten Dunst, or watch the video right here: