There’s a rare sensual acuity in the film-making of Jane Campion. Hers is a body of work that can be mapped out in loaded touches: the tentative brush of skin against skin that sends a jolt through In the Cut; the caress of a piano key in The Piano. Even in a world like that of The Power of the Dog, populated by hard-baked ranchers, the softness long ago sandblasted from their manners, Campion takes a tactile approach to exploring her characters. But in this milieu, not given to gentleness and intimacy, a glimpse of hands working with strips of woven cowhide can take on a transgressive charge.
The setting of the story, which is adapted by Campion from the novel by Thomas Savage, is Montana, 1925. Two wealthy landowners, brothers Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons), find themselves at odds when solid, decent George marries Rose (Kirsten Dunst), a widow and the mother of Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a disconcertingly beautiful teenage boy. Pale-eyed and dangerous, his face whittled sharp from spite, Cumberbatch’s Phil is a chilling presence. He taunts Rose with a whistled song that reminds her of her failures; crudely mocks Peter for his effeminate bearing. But power can shift as rapidly as the light on the mountains. Beneath the derisive catcalls from the ranch hands who follow Phil’s lead is a ripple of palpable discomfort and confusion as Peter walks past. The weathered earth tones of Campion’s subdued colour scheme conceal a vivid and full-blooded emotional palette.