Review: ‘The Power of the Dog’ is like a beautiful painting

The power of the dog is the first film in more than a decade by Jane Campion, the esteemed director of The piano. Rather than returning to the screen dipping his proverbial toes into the pool, Campion dives headfirst into themes that have flourished throughout his career. The novel she adapted – a 1967 Western by Thomas Savage – is a dense psychosexual drama rooted in the attitudes of Prohibition Age America. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Phil Burbank, a gruff and vindictive rancher who spat on a name like Benedict Cumberbatch. When his brother begins wooing a widow with a sissy son, Phil’s anger turns into violent homophobia, but his hatred is more internalized than he thinks.

The film was almost unanimously declared a masterpiece upon its arrival. In some ways, its critical reception was inevitable. The power of the dog is an acclaimed novel adapted by an acclaimed director, a story from a timeless era. Plus, during Campion’s hiatus, some of his weaker films were retroactively crowned misunderstood classics. Now that she’s back, there’s an implicit desire to right the critical wrongs and spread the praise she deserves – and make no mistake about it, she Is Deserves that. Campion is an incredibly insightful filmmaker. If she deserves this level of praise for The power of the dog, however, that is another matter.


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What the film does well, it does remarkably well. Campion has a keen sense of iconography. The symbols that dot the film are like bites of the lips: small subtle and suggestive movements which, given the subject, swell with sensuality. Extreme close-up of the legs of a fly brushing the back of a horse, playful and delicate caress. A wide shot of the mountains surrounding the family ranch, a beauty locked up and locked up. Callused hands, dripping with sweat, tugging rhythmically on a leather thong – sex. Certainly sex. At the sight of these images, Phil’s knees would surely buckle, his homoerotic drive unchecked. Shot by Ari Wegner, the cinematographer behind Lady Macbeth and Fabric, The power of the dog is immersive in its holistic details. You can smell the dust in the air, smell the labor and the cattle. It’s poetic. Jonny Greenwood’s score, a sumptuous weave of soft and sinister, takes imagery to tremendous heights.

The performances are just as evocative. Cumberbatch is in great shape – poisonous and resentful, what remains of his testosterone-smothered humanity is all in his eyes and body language. Her American accent can be difficult to understand, but what isn’t said is the linchpin of her performance. Jesse Plemons, playing Phil’s brother George, is an always reliable actor, and his work here is no exception. He masters the role of a man of few words: when he speaks, we listen to him; when it is moved, we are moved. It’s Kirsten Dunst, however, who runs away with the film. She’s incredibly good as Rose, Phil’s new sister-in-law and the target of his wrath. After Phil’s bullying pushes her into alcoholism and depression, Dunst’s performance turns into a tragic embodiment of the breakup. His facial contortions are enough to cause tears. She is a consummate downer.

But the common thread that links these performances and images together – the scenario – is fragile. The power of the dogpace exposes a void that prose used to fill. Like the novel, the film is divided into chapters and made multiple time jumps, but the adaptation is too clean to let that structure flow. There is a stop-and-go movement in the film that storytelling can tone down in literature: where prose facilitates emotional build-up in small but constant ways, the film feels like it is jumping to different phases of the film. the story between the scenes. Phil is such a stubborn man that the slightest changes in his character are like moving mountains – missing the details of that process keeps him at bay, especially during the first half of the film. As in the adaptations of Campion, the novel’s dialogue has been minimized in favor of evocative gazes and meditative silences. Cumberbatch’s performance is good, but it’s not enough to fill the gap left by the lack of description and dialogue.

Phil feels more multidimensional as the film nears its finale, which is amply dramatic and surprising. It is not too little, but it is too late. The meat of the film is made up of evocative moments that don’t merge together enough to compel. The power of the dog is like a magnificent painting inspired by the novel: its themes and textures have been rejuvenated by a master’s brush, but the fullness of the story cannot be captured by brushstrokes, no matter how finely layered they are.

?? (3/5)


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