Very recently during the last day of the Venice International Film Festival, famed New Zealand director Jane Campion won the Silver Lion for Best Direction for her newest film. Campion’s had a long, illustrious career, with tons of awards including the Palme d’Or and an Academy Award. Seeing her win another award, I knew I’d be in for a treat with this one.
The Power of the Dog is a western starring Benedict Cumberbatch (of Doctor Strange), Jesse Plemons (of I’m Thinking of Ending Things), Kirsten Dunst (of the Virgin Suicides), and Kodi Smit-McPhee (of Paranorman). Cumberbatch and Plemons play the brothers Phil and George Burbank respectively, who run a ranch in Montana during the 1920s. George (looking very similar to his character in the upcoming film Killers of the Flower Moon) falls for a widow, Rose Gordon (played by Dunst), and marries her, to Cumberbatch’s chagrin.
Phil spends most of the film longing for days past, frequently telling all his ranchers the legendary tales of Bronco Henry. That’s the man who taught Phil how to run a ranch, and how to live off the land. He truly yearns for this 19th century lifestyle, where the only way to get around was by horse, and not by car.
But he starts to get particularly angry when Rose’s son from college, Pete Gordon (played by Smit-McPhee), visits the ranch. Pete is more of a 20th century man than a 19th century man. He doesn’t know how to make a rope, or ride a horse. And the presence of mother and son stirs a variety of feelings in Phil.
Cumberbatch (who won the TIFF Tribute Actor Award this year) appears in two films at TIFF, this and the Electrical Life of Louis Wain. In the Power of the Dog, he’s actually making cinematic history as the first male lead to star in a Jane Campion film. He plays a role that appears similar to his other ones; a charming, strong man. His first interaction with Smit-McPhee’s character happens early on, when he insults the character in front of all his ranchers for assembling a bouquet, before angrily yelling at some people enjoying their night. Despite this intense display of anger, he charms all of the ranchers under his employ, leading by example.
Where this role differs from others is that he frequently plays people who do amazing things while annoying others with his mannerisms. Here, he’s not so much annoying, as he is a terrifying figure. He makes it clear to Rose from the beginning he has no respect for her, and considers her a money-grubbing whore trying to take his brother away from him. But what’s most interesting about this character is his hidden vulnerability. In the early parts of the film, it seems like he’s going to be a sadistic figure, torturing the ranch’s new additions.
It’s clear that want he truly wants is connection. He believes he has this with his brother, due to their upbringing, their shared experience on the ranch, and the bed they share. But that all changes when Rose arrives, because he doesn’t have anyone to be vulnerable with anymore. He spends lots of time heading to an isolated river to wash, and enjoy the sun. Here, he remembers his connection with Bronco Henry, who he describes as ‘more’ than a best friend. And with Pete, he sees someone failing to be a masculine ideal, and he decides to try shaping him, a move which terrifies Rose.
The film’s score by Jonny Greenwood (the lead guitarist of Radiohead who’s frequently scored the films of Paul Thomas Anderson) favours the violin to increase tension. The score grows in intensity every time a character looks at Cumberbatch with dread. But instead, it seems to represent Cumberbatch’s internal desires. All he wants is a form of connection, the violins intensity increasing in tandem with his yearn. This feeling is intensified by the number of wide shots, usually panning, over the massive countryside. The beauty of Montana is always accompanied by the loneliness of the wide open spaces, a masterful move of Campion’s.
Pete and Phil seem like very different characters at first. Phil lives off the land, Pete lives at college studying medicine. Phil is frequently dirty and smelly, Pete is always clean and wears the nicest clothes. But the two share many similarities. For example, both are experienced in cutting open animals. Phil frequently does so to castrate his bulls, while Pete does so as part of his studies. Both are defined by relationships with their father figures, Phil with his teacher Bronco Henry, and Pete with his birth father; a doctor who committed suicide. And most importantly, both see the beauty of the land, and how lonely it can be.
As the connection between the two grows, everything in the film fades out of focus. All there is the connection in the wide open spaces. The film’s title refers to a passage in the Bible, Psalm 22:20. “Deliver my soul from the sword, my darling from the power of the dog.” In the Bible this refers to feeling great pain, and a yearning to be free from it. That’s what all the major characters are looking for in this film, a desire to be free from the pain of their loneliness.
If you don’t get the chance to see this film at TIFF, it will come out on Netflix on December 1st this year. The film has already won one major award, and I predict we could see Cumberbatch taking home an award for this performance in the months to come.