One of the most acclaimed directors from this part of the world has had a very front-loaded career. First hitting the scene with the beloved Sweetie in 1989, Jane Campion became a festival and Oscar darling just four years later with The Piano. The ensuing 28 years, though, have been a steady decline in terms of critical appraisal, audience embrace, and regularity of artistic output. Although she fit in two well-received Top of the Lake miniseries in the 2010s, it’s now been a dozen years between feature films from the Kiwi director.
Good news, people – Jane Campion is back. The Power of the Dog finds Campion combining the New Zealand setting of her original successful run of features – at least as a filming locale – with the American subject matter that once seemed her inevitable next step when she made 2003’s In the Cut (which has undergone a recent reappraisal of sorts). The result is a western of staggering physical beauty, where Aotearoa stands in for Nebraska of 1925, giving the film a sort of otherworldly quality while still feeling correctly situated in its historical time and place. Campion’s best work excels in that sense of the otherworldly.
The passing of years since her glory days has not diminished the calibre of actor who wants to work with her. Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst, the latter of whom has been doing especially good work in recent years, head up the cast and comprise the three figures in the Piano-style love triangle at the film’s centre, though to characterise it as such requires a liberal interpretation of their deeper-seated feelings and motivations. A piano also factors into the story. These elements may just be what brings out the best in Campion.
Cumberbatch and Plemons play brothers Phil and George Burbank, wealthy ranchers who couldn’t present more differently to the public. While George dresses well, aspires to high culture and is unfailingly polite, Phil is rude and crude and boycotts a fancy dinner when he is asked to “wash up” prior to coming to the table. On a cattle drive they meet Rose Gordon (Dunst) and her effeminate son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who are running an inn locally famous for its fried chicken dinners. Peter makes paper flowers to be used as table decorations, which earns him the scorn of Phil, who lisps at him mockingly. Ever eager to go the other direction from his brother, George comforts a crying Rose and marries her within a fortnight.
The action shifts to the Burbank ranch, where Rose and Peter are not settling in very well. George’s gentle kindnesses are directly countered by Phil’s hostile welcome. Phil outright accuses Rose of being a schemer, and he hasn’t gotten any warmer towards Peter, who is now attending medical school and practising surgical procedures on dead animals. Phil’s behaviour seems motivated by jealousy, but of whom is not entirely certain – it may be all three of the others he’s living with. It becomes clear that Phil may be carrying a torch of sorts for his mentor Bronco Henry, dead these past two decades, and those unresolved feelings manifest themselves in complex attitudes toward the others who inhabit the ranch with him.
Peak Campion is driven not by narrative but by mood. The story in The Power of the Dog is slack by design, given breathing room as wide as the plains of Nebraska, or actually New Zealand. Even in the comparatively modern time of only a hundred years ago, it’s clear how undeveloped this land is, how much of a speck the characters are as Campion films them from great distances. It feels like anachronism to see an early automobile chugging through this landscape, in which a single road twists through vast expanses and barren hills. The film feels like it could be taking place a hundred years before cars were invented. The plucked string instruments of Jonny Greenwood‘s ethereal score just heighten these senses.
The viewer’s placement within this environment allows him or her to truly focus on the themes of alienation within the text, which is an adaptation of a 1967 novel by Thomas Savage. Everyone’s got something that isolates them, whether it’s Rose recovering from the suicide of her first husband, Peter struggling with being different from the macho cattle herders around him, Phil a whirlwind of contradictions informed by self-loathing, and George just feeling awkward and uncomfortable in his own skin.
In short, these are a collection of Jane Campion characters if ever there was one, and the actors breathe spectacular life into them. While Smit-McPhee and Plemons give performances that play to their traditional strengths, which does nothing to diminish what they’re doing here, this is something of a new look from Cumberbatch and Dunst. Cumberbatch would logically be the hoity-toity brother given the way he has been cast in the past, but he relishes the opportunity to be raw and wicked. Dunst began her career as a sparkly extrovert in most roles, but her recent run of strong work – notably on the Fargo TV series with Plemons, her real-life partner and co-star there and here – has found her nearing 40 as someone beaten down by life. Her character’s descent into alcoholism is expertly realised.
The Power of the Dog tiptoes up to its themes more than exploring them explicitly, and is usually the better for it. The character dynamics evolve with a certain intrigue, though you sometimes want a bigger moment that puts a finer point on things – you know, like Holly Hunter getting a finger cut off in The Piano. Nearly three decades of further experience has given Campion an understanding that the drama in any story is in the withering remarks, the smaller betrayals, the anger that boils up but rarely has the change to vent. That’s really all you need in this haunting, haunted landscape.
The Power of the Dog is currently playing in cinemas and streaming on Netflix.