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'The Power of the Dog' at the Virginia Film Festival

Jane Campion’s film is not your typical Western

<p>The film stars Benedict Cumberbatch and is set to be released on Nov. 17.&nbsp;</p>

The film stars Benedict Cumberbatch and is set to be released on Nov. 17. 

“The Power of the Dog” played at the Paramount Oct. 30 as part of the Virginia Film Festival and is set to be released in the United States Nov. 17. An opening shot displays cows and horses without a human in sight. Director Jane Campion imbues animals with a darkly divine aura by way of long, slow close-ups featuring horses’ and cows’ faces and their searching eyes. The film progresses slowly and sensually, taking care to develop characters and their movements in the spaces they inhabit. Within the uniquely American cultural consciousness, no other genre seems to persist so strongly as the Western, from the lasting legacy of John Wayne to continuous revisionaries like “Django Unchained” or “Nomadland.” 

Based on the 1967 novel by Thomas Savage, “The Power of the Dog” depicts the interior life of two ranchmen brothers after one marries. Campion hails from New Zealand and is known for “The Piano,” which was released in 1993, and “An Angel at My Table,” which was released in 1990. Her newest release feeds on generic tension and revises the Western’s strict categories of human and animal, masculine and feminine, indoor and outdoor. 

Phil Burbank, played by the dynamic Benedict Cumberbatch, and his brother George, played by the methodical Jesse Plemons, are ranchers who lead a cattle drive in Montana. It’s the 25th anniversary of their first drive together — which they took in 1925 — and both the car and the locomotive make early appearances, reminding the audience of the newness of everything around them. In some ways, Phil embodies the typical Western hero at first. He wears chaps and refuses to bathe, he’s tall, hardened, tough and feels most at home when riding his horse. He taunts his brother, but George does not protest. Often dressed up in a suit, George is softer, affable and better equipped to handle the people side of the ranching business. 

As the brothers pass through the small town of Beech with their herd, they stop for a night in an inn run by Rose, played by Kirsten Dunst, and her teenage son Peter, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee. Phil quickly targets Peter, the soft-spoken lanky boy who spends his time making roses out of paper scraps and reading his father’s old medical books. That night, the brothers share a bed, but their proximity is waning. The next morning, George returns to Beech to visit Rose, and much to George’s dismay, the couple quickly marry. Rose no longer has to tend to her small inn, and she moves out of her small house and into the big ranch house — a cavernous mansion on the edge of a foreboding mountain range with a cook and maid. 

Due to budget constraints, the film was shot in New Zealand, a fact that becomes more apparent in scenes that show lushness of the forests the ranchers later visit. In a beautiful scene showcasing the film’s breathtaking 360-degree views, the couple drives to the ranch, and Rose asks George to get out of the car. In this scene, Rose stands on dry hardened ground facing the mountain range and breathes in the majesty of the sight before her. She teaches a reluctant George to dance, and he soon turns away, crying tears of joy that he is no longer alone. 

Back at the ranch, the pair’s idyllic romance no longer exists in a vacuum. As Rose adjusts to her new life as a housewife, her son joins them at the ranch, and the tyrannical Phil begins to take careful stock of his newfound nephew. As Rose attempts to protectively watch on, their relationship progresses beyond her reach. In a genre marked by strict binaries, Campion creates characters who defy simple categorizations. Phil, George and Peter each operate on different planes of expression of masculinity, and as the film progresses, their motivations also become increasingly complex.

Campion’s strongest filmic moments happen on the threshold of the ranch house. The slow pace avoids opulence in its ever-heightening suspense. Characters enter and exit into the landscape surrounding them but cannot escape the deteriorating dynamics within their home. Campion successfully creates a deeply layered sonic texture, achieving suspense and urging the audience to think twice, maybe three times, about each detail and each prediction of what may happen next. 

Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood provides an impressive score that diffuses an air of uneasiness throughout the entire movie. Sounds between the characters permeate the vast house and extend into the open land outside. Phil whistles from his room upstairs to Rose outside, he taunts Rose with his banjo as she struggles with a simple piano tune and dogs often bark in the background. 

With a marriage, two brothers and no showdown on the street, “The Power of the Dog” is no typical Western. The film uses vast landscapes and interiors to draw complex psychological portraits of individuals as members of a family, culminating in a disturbingly satisfying payoff that is so good, you just might want to see it again.