The audience may know the name of Benedict Cumberbatch thanks to many impressive performances, but casting him for a Western cowboy picture may not be the first thing to spring to mind. That notion stood solid until the direction of Jane Campion in her latest drama “The Power of the Dog,” where Cumberbatch proves himself to be perfect for the role. Throughout the film, his character covers himself with dirt to construct a portrait of an internalized masculine crisis. He feels the need to constantly be viewed as the rough and alpha lead among the cowboys, presumably to distract himself from the shame of adoration and affection for the long-gone man who was more to him than just a riding horse teacher. Farewell to all the quirky and light-hearted characters that Cumberbatch has played in the past, via disrespect and malicious remark toward the law, his character, Phil, emphasizes a strong sense of hierarchy in any room that has his presence. His character poses an impression of an indifferent, ruthless, and stone-cold snake that’s willing to oppose the world. Embody himself like a predator in wait, Cumberbatch is perhaps more terrifying than his deep-voiced villains in “The Hobbit” or “Star Trek Into Darkness.” His performance throughout the movie grabs attention just like the image of an unmerciful gun, ready to do harm to any unlucky victim that’s happened to get close.
Together with the rough and tumble Phil comes his kinder brother George, played by Jesse Plemons. While the story establishes a glacial and calloused Phil, George appears as a gentle and soft-spoken man, often putting up with his brother’s manner. The storyline continued with a widow named Rose (Kristen Dunst) and her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), both of whom got harassed and bullied by Phil til the verge of Peter quitting his job and leaving behind his mother in tears. Wanting to ease the woman, George reaches out to comfort Rose and ends up falling for her. The two get married happily but Phil takes this personal and considers his brother being lost to a woman is unacceptable. He then decided to scare off both Rose and Peter, like intensifying heat with a magnifying glass. Everything comes to a pivotal change until Peter takes his chance to get to know Phil. This unexpected friendship unlocks a number of secrets and hidden intentions, changing everyone’s relationship as a whole.
Written and directed by Campion, the setting is the 1920s peaceful yet compromising New Zealand Western is both stunning and imposing. To Peter, it presents the toxic masculinity he has to learn to get out of. To Phil, this wild nature is an escape from the life of unwanted privilege he’s trapped within. Under the veiled of a vicious cowboy and along the horse trace, he found himself along the cow paths, along the mountains and hidden rivers as he learns to desperately bury his desires.
It is not surprising for book adaptations to cut off many details in their originals and serve up a story that is raw and in the moment sensations. Thomas Savage’s novel of the same name is brought to life by a sense of concise and careful transformation. The full backstory is described briefly in a few lines, or most of the time, no line at all. Flashbacks are not used even once, only the characters themselves sharing and talking about what they’ve been through. To do that, Campion and the film’s cinematographer Ari Wegner study all their characters in close-ups, and from this angle, the audience was brought to the feeling as if none of the scenes ever needs to be conveyed by words at all. Instead, all the despair, rage, lament, or even shame were meticulously put out on the facial expression and gestures of the characters. It’s the pain and loss in Rose’s look when she begins drinking after another round of Phil’s torment. It’s in the eyes suppressed with anger Peter gives Phil when he’s being teased. It’s in George’s bent-down head to the floor, desperately long to help his brother’s suffering but incompetent to. It’s in the anger yet loneliness on Phil’s eyes as he comes by the fact that his relationship with his brother is being taken away by the marriage to Rose. Campion also used this method in her previous works such as “An Angel at My Table” and “The Piano.” “The piano” follows the main character, Ada (Holly Hunter), who has to use her facial gesture and sign language to express herself since she cannot speak. Similar to Ada, Cumberbatch’s Phil speaks volumes with every grimace and every defiant smile.
The power dynamics and its shifting are also the focus of many works by Campion: who’s in charge, who’s being the inferior, and how the weak become rebellious against the strong. In “The Power of the Dog,” it is Rose’s entrance into the family that is taken as a threat, a challenge to the previously distributed power. Phil cuts her no slacks, vaguely creating a toxic environment that poisons her, in order to maintain power over George, their business, and the head position in their mansion. She appears as a danger to him as she represents the lust he doesn’t desire and someone he doesn’t yet have control over. But Rose is even more disturbed by Phil and Peter’s ceasefire, fearful of his effect on her son. Just when Peter stands up to Phil’s bullying, she loses herself in the bottle. It’s a tense dance amongst them all, and they’re all waiting to see how it all ends when the music stops.
In terms of music, “The Power of the Dog” features some of the greatest musical performances seen in a film this year. Jonny Greenwood’s work highlights and amplifies several of the on-screen events. String compositions twist and swirl as fiercely as the storyline of the film, tugging our emotions in different ways like a jagged undercurrent. Sweet violins turn sour, as gentler notes rise like powerful waves. The transitions are swift, reflecting the strained relationship between the brothers, the widow, and her son. Plucking strings are used in several of the songs to evoke an unsettling sense of impending peril as if cantering into disaster. Rows of violins join in to amplify the unease, nearly triggering our fight-or-flight reaction. The music stays true to the archetypal Western vibe while adding added levels of gloom throughout.
“The Power of the Dog” enjoys this tense setting as much as Phil enjoys working with cattle over interacting with high society. Despite the fact that the film begins slowly, it quickly picks up. There’s a lot of layered desire, anger, and dominance that comes out to disrupt everyone’s uncomfortable serenity. The battle of wits between Phil and everyone else is a tense one to watch, and it’s just the type of end-of-the-year film to round off the year on a high note.
Available on Netflix on December 1st.