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TIFF 21: Jane Campion’s ‘The Power of the Dog’ Is A Testament To Her Greatness

Jane Campion is no stranger to telling stories about the complex nature of humans. Her stories often reveal hidden vulnerabilities within characters that are forced to conform or aspire to be more than what society deems them to be. Her work is nuanced and complicated, and often sheds light on the invisible binds of gender politics that ensnare us every day. The Power of the Dog is no exception.

In The Power of the Dog, we follow two brothers who could not be more different. George (Jesse Plemons) is a polite, mild-mannered man while his brother Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a volatile one who exudes machismo. The two own a ranch and while George doesn’t get his hands too dirty on the job, Phil considers them partners and equals. That is until George falls for the widowed inn owner, Rose (Kirsten Dunst), and marries her.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons in Power of the Dog.
Benedict Cumberbatch as Phil Burbank and Jesse Plemons as George Burbank in The Power of the Dog. (Courtesy of Kirsty Griffin/NETFLIX © 2021)

What propels Campion’s film is her careful consideration of how humans behave in situations that push their limits or challenge them. The core of the film rests on the dynamic between Phil and Rose. Phil instantly dislikes Rose and openly targets her son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who has a lisp and supposedly feminine mannerisms. Rose, on the other hand, is a seemingly lovely woman who has managed to raise her son despite the hardships of being on her own. Her marriage to the nice George should ease her troubles but the antagonism she faces from her brother-in-law prevents that from happening. 

Cumberbatch and Dunst do wonders to portray the just-beneath-the-surface emotions their characters feel. Phil clearly has no reason to dislike Rose, beyond being protective of his brother, but his inner turmoil regarding things that have nothing to do with Rose compel him to lash out. Rose is facing a challenge she has never really known and doesn’t have the emotional support to stand up against it. Furthermore, Campion captures the nature of the environment Rose is in with a preciseness that allows us to see the external factors that keep Rose down which stem from her being a woman, without exaggerating the point with dialogue. Campion also draws our attention to how this environment, enforced by Phil no less, also impacts him in ways that he cannot express openly with words.

However, it is the performances of Cumberbatch and Dunst that bring to life these intimate and complex behaviours and struggles, and how they relate to gender politics during this time and in this setting. There are subtleties in their performances that very few actors are capable of portraying. After years of proving to be exceptional talents, Cumberbatch and Dunst cement their status as top-tier performers with The Power of the Dog as these roles demand to be played by actors who can balance subtlety and extreme emotions.

Kirsten Dunst as Rose Gordon in The Power of the Dog. (Courtesy of 2021 Cross City Films Limited/Courtesy of Netflix©)

Aside from the stellar writing that portrays such complex relationships and even more complicated people, the film is a brilliant example of visual storytelling. Campion’s camera captures the raw beauty of Montana (courtesy of New Zealand), while also capturing scenery that best reflects her characters. Phil’s refuge by the lake is a peaceful place with luscious green grass and trees that are wildly sprawling all around him. The place is serene and untamed which brings the sense of calm and freedom that Phil so eagerly wants. Rose is often trapped in a house that appears to stand alone in a massive empty space surrounded by mountains and vast open fields, making her feel small and isolated from the rest of civilization. Furthermore, Campion is also a master of creating tension with careful camera placements and movements that never fail to capture the harrowing performances of her actors.

The Power of the Dog is a testament to Campion’s power as a storyteller and a filmmaker. While it may be an adaptation of a book, she makes it her own. Every word spoken carries more weight than the characters might realize. Every frame of footage details the complex interiority of her characters. Every small gesture from her actors is never lost in the exceptional production and costume design. Campion is a deliberate filmmaker and The Power of the Dog is an example of how she utilizes every aspect of the visual medium to tell her story.

Rating: 10/10

The Power of the Dog plays in limited theatres beginning November 17, then is available to stream on Netflix starting December 1.

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