By John H. Foote
The last great film Jane Campion made was the exquisite The Piano (1993), which made her just the second woman nominated for a Best Director Oscar. The Piano received universal acclaim and was the only challenger as the year’s finest film to Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece Schindler’s List. It has been over a decade since Campion’s last film and she returns with The Power of the Dog, a gorgeous, astonishing modern (1923) western.
It is Montana, 20 years after the end of the Old West, but men still work ranches and ride horses, alongside the new-fangled automobiles. Two very different brothers work a ranch, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) as the nasty brother, and George (Jesse Plemons), the more genteel, softer of the two. There is something dangerous about Phil, something that could turn ugly fast. When George marries a pretty young widow, Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and brings her home to their ranch, their lives are tested in many ways. Phil quietly torments Rose, mocking her piano playing, making clear what he thinks of her (“You are a schemer”) recognizing over the weeks and months, Rose is an alcoholic, hiding booze all over the ranch.
When Rose’s son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) comes to the ranch on his school break, he is initially teased relentlessly by the ranch hands for being effeminate, a sissy in Phil’s words. Slowly, under Phil’s careful, sometimes brutal watch, the boy is transformed into a ranch worker. But suddenly there is a shocking turn of events, leaving us to wonder if Peter is perhaps different than he seems, and as unforgiving and dangerous as Phil, his one-time tormentor?
Directed with pristine clarity, this could be Campion’s crowning achievement, and could make her the first woman to be twice nominated as Best Director by the Academy. More than once the poetry of John Ford is apparent in Campion’s art, as the landscape becomes a character, equal to the actors. This is big sky country, where the heavens seem impossible to reach, the land unforgiving in its hardships. This kind of life would not be for the weak.
Cumberbatch has never been as astounding in screen before as the brutal man who makes a friend in the boy. At first, I thought the actor was miscast, but very quickly his talent proved me wrong. He is utterly brilliant. Looking rough and leathery, this gifted actor gives a ferocious performance.
Kirsten Dunst should finally, after years of snubs, be nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress. As a lonely woman, once a beauty, she has been beaten down by life and turns to drink. Her husband, the kindly George forgives it, looks the other way. Both Dunst and Plemons are superb.
And finally, McPhee whom I have never appreciated, is a revelation here as the devious young man. Watch him carefully until the end and ask yourself if you believe him guilty of murder?
The Power of the Dog feels Oscar-bound, too great to be by passed. Netflix is in the race again.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.