By Michelle Strozykowski
The Power of the Dog is not what it first seems. Yes, it’s a western. Beautiful sweeping vistas centre us firmly in the world of the cowboy, but it’s unlike any western I’ve seen before. It’s thought provoking, melancholic, and grazes in many a pasture new.
The cinematography by Ari Wegner is stunning; reminiscent of Vittorio Storaro’s work on The Sheltering Sky; and Campion definitely makes the most of it. Lingering shots over the mountains, the cloud filled skies, the dusty ranches. It’s breathtaking to look at. Accompanied by a brooding, atmospheric soundtrack from Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, it’s pretty good to listen to too. The narrative, based on Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel, is also ideally paced to fit with both sound and vision. It seems slow moving at first, but it’s only later you realise that there’s been a constant trail of breadcrumbs imperceptively scattered, inviting us to lean in closer and ponder what lies beneath the surface.
Benedict Cumberbatch gives a pitch perfect performance as the hateful ranch owner Phil Burbank. It’s shuddering to think that he went full blown method on this role. Not only learning how to rope and ride horses proficiently, but also remaining in character between takes. Given Burbank’s bullying misogyny towards the widow Rose (played by Kirsten Dunst) this surely must have presented the actors with some challenges?
Speaking on a panel at the New York Film Festival, Cumberbatch described how difficult it was:
“To form a relationship with, however odd and combative it was, with Kirsten… We hardly talked because we were in character all the time, so once I’d done that work (the pre-production cowboy training) I was kind of trying to be him (Burbank) all the time, so... we’re good friends now.
(- “We were friends on the weekend”, Kirsten Dunst cuts in, laughing.)
We were friends at the weekend, it was very weird”
It probably helped that Dunst’s real life partner Jesse Plemons was also in the film, playing her character Rose’s husband (and Phil’s brother) George Burbank. George is a man with principles, who wants to do the right thing, but is held back by his loyalty to his brother. Even though he can see what a nasty piece of work Phil has become, his deep-seated fear of rocking the boat prevents him from standing up to his brother in any kind of meaningful way.
It is purely down to Plemon’s layered and articulate performance that George is able to come across as a character we want to root for. That we truly feel deserves more than to just be Phil’s whipping boy.
Rising Star Kodi Smit-McPhee
The final piece in the puzzle is Rose’s son from her first marriage, Peter. Rising star Kodi Smit-McPhee plays Peter, an effeminate young man who is openly mocked by Phil Burbank at first, and then seemingly taken under his wing. Phil recognises something of himself in Peter, and determines to toughen him up. Peter, a quiet but observant student, doesn’t feel as though he needs to be toughened up. Quite the contrary. As his stoic reaction to being heckled and laughed at shows, Peter is a boy who already knows his own strength.
Give 'em Enough Rope
The film meanders along, the tension gradually increasing, and it looks like we might be building towards something. But the pay off we expect is always frustratingly out of reach. Instead Campion subverts our expectations in a novel way. All the talk of rope and hanging people cleverly leads us down one path, but like an audience in the hands of a master conjuror, we realise too late we’ve missed the thing we should have been concentrating on. There are no cheap tricks here though. No clever plot twists, just painstaking storytelling that requires scrutiny.
It's this mastery of storytelling that allows us so fully into the worlds of four very separate and distinct people, and leaves us with much to ruminate over long after the final scene. Don't be fooled by the title though. This definitely ain't a film about dogs.