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The Power of the Dog review – a cunning slow burn from the queen of desire

Jane Campion's first film in twelve years is a dizzying, unpredictable exploration of desire that builds to an unforgettable finale

Enthralling, uncomfortable, brutal and beautiful, Jane Campion’s first feature in twelve years is a formidable psychodrama that constantly zigs where you think it will zag. Despite a lethargic beginning that takes its time building up the tension, The Power of the Dog eventually delivers a queasy final act that leaves you woozy and unsettled.

Surrounded by the ravishing beauty of the Montana mountains – actually shot in the director’s native New Zealand – lives Rose (Kirsten Dunst), a widow who lost her husband to suicide, and her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), an artistic and sensitive teenager. After a sweet and tentative courtship, Rose marries local man George (Jesse Plemons). But there’s a problem: when Rose moves to her new husband’s ranch, she must also adapt to living with his boorish brother Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch), a cruel rancher who begins to taunt her and Peter. As an unsteady tightrope of homosexual tension is tied between two characters, Campion entangles us in this central web of manipulation.

Manspreading across a horse, spurs glinting menacingly in the sunshine, striding with his pelvis thrust forward thanks to elaborate chaps: Phil certainly makes an entrance in Rose’s decorous world. His fingers are baked with days-old dirt, his wrinkled face sweaty with grime. He latches onto every weakness he sees, a playground bully who runs his mouth to conceal an inner loneliness. Rose is humiliated by his bulldozing personality and gleeful cruelty; so grieved is she by his presence that she turns to alcohol, sinking deeper into a bourbon-soused stupor as her son watches on concernedly.

But just because Peter is quiet and polite, it doesn’t mean he’s a coward. His dignified fight to protect his mother almost happens without you noticing. When he directly asks us, in the film’s opening lines, “What kind of man would I be if I did not save my mother?”, we still don’t guess that this gangly teenager hides a whirring brain behind those wide, innocent eyes. Kodi Smit-McPhee is a revelation, rising shrewdly to the task of such a tricky role among a cast of veteran actors.

In the first hour of the film, Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance teeters the line of stern and silly: as he draws on vowels in phrases like “Ain’t 'em purrrdy” and plays the banjo like an ejected member of Mumford & Sons, it’s hard to squash the celebrity down and find him truly menacing. But when his character is probed deeper and Phil and Peter tentatively edge towards a new kind of friendship, Cumberbatch becomes fascinating to watch.

Eventually the actor joins the hallowed halls of Campion men, from Harvey Keitel to Mark Ruffalo, who unravel their initial brutishness, both physically and emotionally (yes, readers, he does full-frontal). But beyond a typically Campionesque frankness to the human form, there’s a sensuality to his turn that audiences may not have seen from this actor to date. Many have questioned the casting choice, but instead of choosing a more burly or grizzled actor, it makes sense to choose someone atypical: it only makes Phil’s bombastic cruelty all the more uncanny.

It’s a shame that neither Dunst nor Plemmons have much to do with their roles. The former’s turn as a depressed damsel is frustrating, and the latter’s mute cowardice seemingly underwritten. Thomasin McKenzie also seems criminally underused. But the film comes alive in the scenes between Smit-McPhee and Cumberbatch, bolstered by a Johnny Greenwood score that prickles at your skin like sandpaper, while cinematographer Ari Wegner, who also shot the recent films In Fabric and True History of the Kelly Gang, stunningly captures the landscape in all its vastness.

Anyone who has seen Campion’s previous work will be aware of her masterful understanding of female desire and the way it manifests in thorny, unexplained forms. With The Power of the Dog, it’s made clear that she just plain understands desire, female or otherwise. She knows that it is never a straight line, but braided into knots that make us suffocated, stretched taut. She knows that sexual attraction can be manipulated and weaponized against us to devastating effect. With every ASMR-esque sound of snipping scissors and flexing ropes, the tension crackles with something, somewhere, resembling lust, with danger lurking at the edges.

For someone so attuned to the rhythms of female passion, it only seems right that Campion uses her first male protagonist to flip this passion on its head, to pull the rug out from under us with a final, unexpected flourish. The film takes its name from Psalm 22:20 which reads: “Deliver my soul from the sword, and my precious life from the power of the dog.” It suggests a desire to fight to assert your dignity: a David-and-Goliath battle for the ones you love, armed with weapons to target your oppressor’s Achilles' heel. Though you might journey through it all a little unconvinced, Campion ties up the narrative with a killer ending that feels both maddeningly tense and deeply, deeply satisfying.

The Power of the Dog was screened as part of the Venice Film Festival 2021. It is released in UK cinemas on 19 November and Netflix on 1 December.

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