What’s most impressive about Academy Award–winning writer and director Jane Campion’s return to feature films is how she thoughtfully depicts complex introspection in each of her characters, a feat especially difficult to achieve when telling a story in a visual medium. Though she cannot rely on paragraphs of internal monologue to inform audiences of what her characters are thinking, Campion successfully utilizes the visual medium to do this intimate character analysis in her new film, The Power of the Dog.
The Power of the Dog, an adaptation of Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel of the same title, employs an efficacious combination of marvelous acting and a dynamic score by Jonny Greenwood to enhance the drama between the complex characters. Campion’s intelligent directorial choices channel these elements to offer the audience insight into her characters while still keeping elements of their past hidden. The result is a subdued Western that rewards attentive viewing and requires multiple watches to reach its true emotional impact.
Set on a Montana ranch in 1925, wealthy brothers Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons) stop by a restaurant and inn, where George falls in love with the inn’s owner, Rose (Kirsten Dunst). The remainder of the film explores the intense dynamics between the three, as hot-headed Phil fumes over losing the familiar relationship and routines he had with his brother after Rose and George get married. The tension between the three intensifies when Rose’s son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) returns home from boarding school.
Cumberbatch and Dunst are both spectacular in their roles. Cumberbatch’s acting channels the intensity of a snarling wolf, yelling at anyone who gets in his way and intimidating other characters with his gruff and bearded look. Dunst portrays Rose as a strong but lonely widow whose character arc is sparked by her marriage to George.
Campion draws her audience’s attention by hiding the reasons for each character’s personal and emotional struggles. Her smart directorial decision making leaves her viewers guessing the reasons for Phil’s temper, Peter’s timidity, and Rose’s wariness of Phil. Because all of the details about the characters are presented in the first hour of the film, however, the pacing can feel slow and disorienting.
The film makes up for its slow introduction as it explores broader themes of benevolence, introspection, sexuality, and family. Campion certainly leaves her audience with more questions than answers, but the film’s thought-provoking nature also convinces audiences to return for a necessary second watch.
Featured Image Courtesy of Netflix