BFI London Film Festival 2021: Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog

The Power of the Dog (2021)

Deliver my soul from the sword/My darling from the power of the dog” (Psalms, Preface to Thomas Savage’s novel The Power of the Dog (1967)).

The biggest mistake I probably made is reading the book ahead of the film. I read Thomas Savage’s novel The Power of the Dog awhile ago now and this reading experience definitely tampered with my experiencing Jane Campion’s film. The Power of the Dog centres on two very different brothers Phil and George Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons) living on a big ranch in Montana in 1925. If Phil is the very definition of a brutal force and “no-nonsense” attitude, his brother George is more subdued and caring. When George takes notice of a lonely widow Rose (Kirsten Dunst), falls in love her, and moves her and her alienated teenage son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) into Burbanks’ property, the gap between the brothers only grows and soon full psychological warfare is raging. Through the film’s atmosphere alone (including production, camerawork, score and setting), as well as Cumberbatch’s mesmerising-in-its-zealousness performance, The Power of the Dog is a film of uncanny beauty and subtle power, whose biggest asset is the curious interplay of contrasts of all kinds: physical power vs. powers of intellect, kindness vs. ruthlessness, refinement vs. roughness, innocence vs. corruption, hypocrisy vs. honesty, and love vs. hate.

One element to notice immediately in The Power of the Dog is the way in which Campion evokes that distant time period and one rural farm in the middle of nowhere. Every shot of the film transports us back to 1925 almost poetically, to that time in the country when almost everyone survived by their wits alone and men were supposed to be “manly”, a quality which in the story soon clashes violently with another man’s reach for finer elements in life, including intelligence and beauty. We are transported to the house of well-to-do brothers Burbank and into their settled way of life which has always revolved around hunting and working on the ranch. The sudden arrival of a new woman in George’s life, Rose and her son, who, in turn is so ill-suited to farm-work, unsettles Brother Phil. This growing dissatisfaction with Rose and Peter on Phil’s part fuels the drama for the rest of the film. When Peter also discovers one of Phil’s deepest secrets, he not only has an opportunity to get closer to the man, but also to probe all of his weaknesses. Here, however, Jane Campion, who is also a scriptwriter, makes a fatal mistake in her interpretation of Savage’s book. The point of the book was to show the two brothers as equal competitors, meaning both competing with each other in some form of  charisma, despite George’s kinder and meeker temperament. In the film, however, the production chose actor Jesse Plemons to represent George and, unfortunately and with all due respect to this actor, he lacks the necessarily screen presence to embody George, who though may be rather unassuming in the book and is, indeed, described as “stocky”, must still wield his own subtle power and have some form of an arresting presence regardless. Thus, there is no battle of wits between the two, as the book implies. In fact, the most forgettable scenes are those with Jesse Plemons in the role of George, and the decision to cast Plemons probably came from the desire not to overshadow Cumberbatch.

The Power of the Dog is hard book to adapt to the screen because of its innuendos, symbolism of many elements, including the leather, the mountain resembling the dog, the paper flowers, the music “battlegrounds” in the households, and all kinds of other subtleties. The drama is mainly psychological and going on in the characters’ minds. Thus, it is very admirable that Campion managed to imbue her film with so much authenticity pertaining to a film-western and faithfulness to the original book, instinctively knowing where to position each of the actors and scenes in sequence for the biggest impact. Her directional work is impeccable, including her attention to details, from Phil’s whistling skills and the care with which he rolls his cigarettes to the contrast drawn between Rose’s learnt mannerism at the piano and Phil’s natural musical talent. However, necessarily, the film is also not perfect and the weakest part is its first half. The Power of the Dog feels as though it starts in the middle of the some exiting plot but then sometimes aimlessly and sometimes tediously reaches its half point mark through “chapters”. From the middle point, it again becomes fascinating when the characters of Phil and Peter get to know each other more and the character of Peter, who is deemed a “sissy-boy”, is put into sharp relief.

Despite the reservations I have, however, the film holds attention throughout and this partly due to the phenomenal work of the cast. Similar to the novel, The Power of the Dog is the kind of a film which relies almost exclusively for its drama on the right portrayal of the character of Phil Burbank, and, thus, on the performance from Benedict Cumberbatch. And, I am happy to report that Cumberbatch more than delivers. The actor’s Phil Burbank, a man full of ego, is the very embodiment of unquestionable authority which is not overtly frightening, but instead displays signs of something far more disturbing, a personality that may hide its menace behind every expression of friendliness and one does not know when bulling or cruelty is about to emerge. The key here was to create the aura of subtle controlling behaviour and psychological abuse, and Cumberbatch understood this task completely, surely giving the most unforgettable performance of 2021 and deserving at least an Academy Award nomination. Kirsten Dunst also first pleasantly surprises and then amazes. Dunst’s scenes at the piano especially leave the audience sympathetic to her plight and feeling for her nervousness and awkwardness around Phil. The actress strikes a admirable balance between presenting an ordinary woman fallen on hard times while trying to seek personal happiness, and at the same time enabling Rose to come across as that kind of a generous and kind person who could have developed into a more interesting and sophisticated person given different, more favourable-to-her, circumstances.   

The Power of the Dog is a film of incredible beauty with powerful performances, a film that is all about the triumph of unassumingness, quiet intelligence and learning over the obvious display of physical might and natural skills. It has this memorable ending whose appreciation depends on a slow realisation of all that was happening before in the film. However, though fateful to Thomas Savage’s vision and plot, the film is also unfortunately slightly let down by its almost aimless and slightly tedious first half and the unfortunate cast of Jesse Plemons. 8/10

6 thoughts on “BFI London Film Festival 2021: Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog

  1. One of your best reviews. I loved the “ interplay of contrasts”, and felt this listing deepened my understanding of the film. I had thought that if I had read the book, I would have felt more confident in my writing about the film’s ending. I think Peter followed in his father’s demise after he knew his mother would be safe. ( Yet, Peter, what mother would be happy with a husband and a son taking their own lives!! ) I also, loved your “ Music battleground” phrasing. I plan to read Savage’s novel.
    The battle of wits was between Phil and Peter. As other reviewer wrote referring to Cumberbatch: “ weakness can be force’s most effective sheath.” I liked Plemons in the role of a simple Simon: kind, unassuming, and so devotedly in love.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your views. Well, that was my point. The battle of wits in the novel was primarily between the two brothers who are constantly contrasted. Hence, I said that a more famous and charismatic (and, I am sorry to say this – more “handsome”) actor should have been chosen for the role of George. I am sorry, but Plemons is definitely not George. Of course, Phil and Peter are contrasted too, but the “battle” between them in the novel is almost like an afterthought and powerful culmination. I think Campion should have stuck with that interpretation, which would have been more logical and more thought-provoking. The point had to be to keep Peter in the background almost constantly so that his final actions could come as more of a shock.

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