The Power of the Dog review – Campion and Cumberbatch’s beautiful, brawny western

Jane Campion comes to Venice with The Power of the Dog, a potent wild west tale featuring cowboys and horses and big bad wolves who walk upon their hind legs. It’s the director’s first feature since 2009’s Bright Star and is so confident and well-textured it reminds us what we’ve been missing. The landscape without her has looked a little arid and flyblown. Put too many men in charge of the business and sooner or later the entire system breaks down.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons star as the Burbank brothers, Phil and George, who run a successful cattle ranch in the hills of Montana, striding through the badlands, kicking up dustclouds with each step. The year is 1925 but it could be a hundred years earlier, such is the backwards, brutish nature of the place. This is an environment where strong men endure and the weak risk being blown away like topsoil. Phil, en particular, prides himself on his strength.

The Burbanks have been together so long, sharing the same bed like a cantankerous Laurel and Hardy, that any change in their circumstances is bound to feel monumental. Even so, Phil is outraged out of all proportion when George abruptly takes a wife. He appears to detest widowed Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), who runs the nearby restaurant and rooming-house, where her previous husband hung himself. And he is especially incensed by the presence of Rose’s delicate son, Pedro (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who likes making paper flowers and whose jeans squeak when he walks. “Miss Nancy,” he calls him. “Little Lord Fauntleroy.” Phil has a disconcerting habit of staring fixedly at the far hills, as though watching out for some hidden threat. Perhaps he fears that Peter’s infernal squeaking jeans are going to attract wolves or bears.

The Power of the Dog is adapted from the novel by Thomas Savage although it also carries the faint flavour of Steinbeck’s East of Eden, or Malick’s Days of Heaven. It’s a brawny, brooding drama about the wreckage caused by men, beautifully framed in muted neutral tones as the camera circles the ranch-house with a deliberate, stealthy tread. Now Peter is panicked and keeps running for cover while Rose has started self-medicating with the whisky she has stashed in the linen closet. One way or another, this story is not about to end happily.

Cumberbatch, that child of Harrow, makes a decent clenched fist of his role as vicious Phil Burbank. If you can believe him as a hard-bitten western thug, castrating cattle one-handed and lassoing mustangs in the yard, then Campion’s battle is already half-won. Except that Phil, we slowly realise, is also playing a role. He’s had to adapt to survive. He’s had to throttle his more refined qualities. Incrementally, by degrees, Campion shows the ways in which the men who set out to tame the frontier have instead been broken and bent to its will. Coarsened, desperate Phil Burbank longs to jump the fence and run free. The far hills aren’t the danger. It turns out that his troubles are much closer to home.

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