It’s been over a decade since Jane Campion’s last movie. It’s hard to imagine a better way to herald her return than this, one of the best – perhaps the best – films of her career. Not that Campion is one for fanfare, of course. She makes films that draw you in with quiet mystery, steeping you in her world and its characters at her own pace, then devastatingly shatters it all when she’s ready. The Power Of The Dog is Campion at her finest.
The story takes place in 1920s Montana, in a miniscule town surrounded by dust and mountains. In this tiny world, of one ranch, one restaurant and a whole lot of cows, outsized drama brews. The ranch is owned by brothers Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons). George has gentlemanly ambitions, dressing neatly and hobnobbing with big-city dignitaries. Phil is a rough-hewn cowboy who bullies, brawls and never cracks a smile. The only thing he gives any care is the saddle of his late mentor, Bronco Henry, which he treats like a holy relic. Work is the only thing worthy of attention.
George does not share Phil’s commitment to solitude. He gently romances, then marries, Rose (Kirsten Dunst), the owner of that restaurant. She and her son, Peter (X-Men’s Kodi Smit-McPhee), move into the huge house George and Phil share. Phil petulantly bullies both Rose, baselessly accusing her of being a gold-digger, and Peter, mocking him for behaviour he considers unmanly: making paper flowers and simply enjoying the company of his mother. For all he picks on him, Phil develops an interest in Peter and makes it his job to teach him the tough ways of the rancher.
The strongest moments come when the characters believe nobody else is looking
The western is a smart fit for Campion. Her work is so often about people marooned in an unwelcoming world, whether it’s Ada silent and friendless in rural New Zealand in The Piano, or Isabel trapped in a vast, loveless house in The Portrait Of A Lady. The Power Of The Dog works on the same theme, the endless landscape providing her largest canvas yet. She uses it stunningly. She frames the Montana landscape (actually New Zealand) to make it either a sweep of possibility or an emptiness that will swallow you up. Peppered with leaping ranchers, it looks like a new world coming to life. Still, but for drifting shadows it looks like hell. Specked in the middle of it, contained in one building, are all our characters, each in some way hiding who they really are.
There’s towering, quiet confidence in Campion’s storytelling. Her stories usually centre on women in a patriarchal environment. Here the world is still patriarchal but Campion is interested in how it crushes Rose, Phil and Peter in different ways. She’s tells each of their stories with devastating care. She trusts her cast fully to convey their characters’ depths with minimal dialogue. None of them lets her down.
There’s towering, quiet confidence in Campion’s storytelling
The strongest moments come when the characters believe nobody else is looking. Rose, driven half-mad by loneliness and lack of purpose, seeks desperate comfort swigging booze in an alley. Phil bathes in a river, his armour of fury washed off for a moment of quiet happiness. Peter calmly dissects an animal to see what’s inside.
Campion reveals her characters slowly, drawing out crucial details that we should have seen all along with a subtly that will make repeat watches richly rewarding. It’s a triumph. A ten-year wait for her next film would be too much.
Streaming on Netflix now.