Heartland: The Power Of The Dog

Jane Campion's masterful first film in 11 years is a tense, bleak examination of toxic masculinity and sexuality in the early 20th century.

Jane Campion is one of the most celebrated filmmakers in the business, from the Oscar-winning drama “The Piano” to “The Portrait Of A Lady.” To make matters even more interesting Campion hasn’t actually directed a feature film in over 11 years with her last film being the period romance “Bright Star.” “The Power of the Dog” is an actually an adaptation of Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel of the same name and has been a passion projects of sorts for Campion, hence the long wait since her last film.

“The Power of the Dog” is set on a Montana ranch in the 1920s and centers around two brothers and ranchers who couldn’t be more different from one another: Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) is the machismo, tormenting older sibling who is respected by the ranch hands and speaks with a long southern drawl. George (Jesse Plemons) is the younger sibling who by far the more compassionate of the two and tends to be much more civilized than his rugged brother. While already at odds with one another, their sibling rivalry is taken to a whole other level with Rose (Kirsten Dunst), a quiet widow with a teenage son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee).

Phil immediately targets Peter from making fun of his lisp to burning his intricately made paper flowers to light his cigarettes. George on the other hand is smitten by Rose and it isn’t long before he marries her and takes her and her son to the ranch he and his brother run. Phil soon makes the unspoken vow to ruin his brother’s new marriage, plummeting Rose into alcoholism and forming a mysterious and twisted bond with Peter.

Campion is dealing with a lot of mature themes with “The Power of the Dog,” in particular toxic masculinity and sexuality. Throughout the film we learn that Phil was mentored by a now deceased rancher known as Bronco Henry, who he holds to highest level of respect. Campion subtly leads the audience to believe that there was something more going on than just a mentorship between the two and once Phil starts taking Peter under his wing, that’s when the tension really starts to brew.

The film moves at deliberately slow pace, which will likely tune some audience members out but for those who are patient enough, “The Power of the Dog” is one of the most rewarding cinematic experiences of the year. Subtly is key in Campion’s direction, yet she is still able to make the film feel epic in scope despite a much more personal tale in limited locations. Campion brilliantly blends modern and classical filmmaking in her direction which makes the film all the more unique. The film certainly feels modern despite it’s period setting, but the slow pacing is more reminiscent of previous eras in filmmaking.

Jonny Greenwood, the lead guitarist and keyboardist of Radiohead, lends his talents to the film’s score which is coated with subdued guitar riffs and helps build the film’s immersive atmosphere. Greenwood’s score perfectly captures the spirit and nature of the film, it’s moody, eerie, and even unnerving, but it’s also some of Greenwood’s best work as a composer to date. Ari Wegner’s cinematography is another highlight of the film and beautifully captures the Montana landscapes that surround the central ranch.

Cumberbatch gives a career high performance in the role of Phil and is convincing in playing the disturbed cowboy. He shows shades of menace and dominance but also gives the audience small hints on what is really going on inside his head. Smit-McPhee is on an equal playing field as Cumberbatch, accurately capturing the nervous nature of Peter, from his lisp to his lanky walk and posture. Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst are definitely strong in their roles as well but their roles are never as “showy” as some may expect. Dunst does get moments to truly shine in the third act of the film that will very likely land her first Oscar nomination.

“The Power of the Dog” is not a film for everybody and isn’t as accessible as some of the Oscar contenders that have already debuted this season, but for cinephiles and those who like their stories told more slowly and ambiguously, there’s plenty to appreciate in Campion’s latest film.