Dame Jane Campion returns with her long-awaited Venice Silver Lion winner, a rich, menacing neo-Western tackling cowboy brothers and the woman who comes between them. Set against the hazy grasslands of 1920s Montana, Campion transports this tale home to Aotearoa.
Working at the height of her powers, NZ powerhouse Dame Jane Campion turns her laser-like gaze on the complex characters inhabiting the world of the 1967 Thomas Savage novel, The Power of the Dog. Savage – Montana-bred and best known for his confronting, claustrophobic cuts of life in the American Old West – remained largely overlooked for the majority of his career; The Power of the Dog only received its due acclaim since re-publication in 2001, two years prior to Savage’s death in 2003.
Ahead of its time and – like the rather too-grand ranch house that grudgingly provides a roof over its inhabitants, the wealthy Burbank brothers – out of step with the times (in this case, 1925 Montana), Campion’s long-awaited return to cinematic storytelling is a triumph and well worth the wait.
We enter the lives of bachelor brothers whose parents have long since left them to retire in the comfort and society of Denver. Their two adult sons, edging into their 40s and still unmarried, run the family’s successful cattle ranch. But long-established routine is disrupted when gentlemanly brother George (Jesse Plemons) unexpectedly brings home new wife Rose (Kirsten Dunst), a young widow and her studious son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee).
Rough-hewn, toxically male brother Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) lashes out relentlessly, tormenting mother and son as unwelcome interlopers. Rose is cowed and increasingly broken by Phil’s mental and emotional assault, but the outwardly delicate Peter reveals a hidden core of steel and an intellectual sharpness to match the surgical skill he practices for his medical studies, deftly dissecting rabbits he traps in the back hills of the ranch.
Peter’s connection with the land is evidenced by his eye for the distant hills, which he tells Phil clearly take the shape of a Barking Dog, a characteristic of the landscape only Phil and his legendary mentor Bronco Henry have ever been able to discern. The battle between Rose and Phil for Peter’s fealty turns the remote ranch into a pressure cooker no amount of blue skies and wide-open ranges can dissipate. Campion’s gaze, often falling on the intense and complex inner lives of women, newly examines what it is to be male – and how that, in itself, can prove a titanic struggle.
The Power of The Dog had a rapturous welcome to the world stage, in competition at the Venice Film Festival in September where Dame Jane Campion won the Silver Lion award for Best Director. Jane is an incomparable storyteller; it’s a great honour to share her film, with its rich and complex characters, so profoundly embedded and framed in the stark beauty of Aotearoa. The reflection of our own history, depicted in the rugged brutality of American frontier life, will be inescapable to Kiwi audiences. — Marten Rabarts