Director: Jane Campion
Writers: Jane Campion, Thomas Savage (based on the novel by)
Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons
At University, I remember vividly our studying of Jane Campion’s The Piano. On the surface, it’s a relatively simplistic prestige drama. It has grounded performances (particularly groundbreaking in the case of Anna Paquin and Holly Hunter) and an earnest love story to smooth the edges of its often thick atmosphere. But beyond the veil, The Piano disquietingly unearths a primal sexuality, a fierce understanding of insatiable lust and the pressurised culture that permeates such yearning.
It’s a film that expanded in meaning and scope the more I looked within it. Such is the case with Campion’s return to feature films, The Power of the Dog. It takes time and patience for The Power of the Dog to truly reveal itself in all of its splendour, and in this regard, I would argue the film’s biggest pitfall is its inaccessibility upon first viewing.
Questioning each moment makes one feel as though they missed something, and context in Campion’s film is often left unsaid only to be determined by clues left later. It could even be argued that the film is the antithesis to our infatuation with easily accessible stories. The modern age has provided such a blank slate for which we can digest media, less time intensive and easier to comprehend, that it seems almost marvellous The Power of the Dog can exist at all. But every year, it seems, there are art films this methodical, this spacious and looming, that invokes deep rooted emotions without us even having the capacity to necessarily comprehend why.
Some of these films posture in their artistry, using illusions to influence their momentum without actually working to get there. But The Power of the Dog is tried and true. It is a film rewarding in its experience beyond any conventionally satisfying ending, beyond any emotional flash or violent bombast, beyond anything we can expect in the modern age of mainstream cinema.
Instead, The Power of the Dog rewards upon the unravelling of its characters, and its true impact is felt long after the credits roll when you lie awake thinking of what each calculated moment meant in the stack of cards that threatens the very nature of the people who inhabit the film. Award-worthy performances liter the picture, but chief among them is Kodi Smit-McPhee who crafts a perfectly nuanced portrait rich with delicate sensitivity and a fierce, sexually provocative undercurrent. Indeed, The Power of the Dog succeeds chiefly on its ability to weave through minefields of sexual tension without hardly a kiss.
It is a movie about the pressurised containment of toxic masculinity, and the power of sexual promiscuity. Campion’s film was designed to be an indulgence, one in which the viewer is meant to seep each and every mindful detail out of its rich atmosphere. The beautifully captured Australian plains are cast and feature as a wholly realised character in the mountainous Montana fields. Campion’s watchful eye calculates each visual as its own unique puzzle piece in a bizarre and twisted story.
I caution viewers to experience The Power of the Dog with a clear mind eager to absorb the rich vastness that is depicted, for if you do, you will be unambiguously rewarded in the film’s final third where all that it appears to be is subverted in an orchestra of small, calculated brilliance. 9.3/10