Dame Jane Campion returns with her Venice Silver Lion-Best Director winner; a rich, menacing neo-Western tackling cowboy brothers and the mother and son who come between them.
Working at the height of her powers, Campion turns her cinematic gaze on the complex characters inhabiting the world of the 1967 novel by Thomas Savage, an overlooked author whose masterwork The Power of the Dog received its due acclaim only since its re-publication in 2001. Clearly the book appeared before its time and out of place, not unlike the robber-baronial ranch house belonging to the Burbank family, better suited to Boston than the backblocks of 1925 Montana.
We enter the lives of the wealthy Burbank brothers, whose well-to-do parents have long since left them on the dusty high plains, retiring to the comforts and society of distant Colorado Springs. Their two sons, both unmarried and edging into their 40s, run the family’s successful cattle ranch, rattling around in the brooding mansion their mother built to insulate her Eastern sensibilities against the wilds of the West. The brothers’ long-established routine is disrupted when gentlemanly brother George Burbank (Jesse Plemons) unexpectedly brings home a new wife, Rose (Kirsten Dunst), and her studious teenage son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee).
Rough-hewn, toxically-male brother Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) lashes out, relentlessly tormenting both 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. His intellectual sharpness matches the surgical skill he practices for his medical studies, deftly dissecting rabbits he traps in the back hills of the ranch.
Peter’s intuitive 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, an elusive characteristic of the landscape only Phil and his legendary mentor Bronco Henry have ever been able to discern. This shared understanding of the land triggers a change in the weathered cowboy, his usual brutality giving way to something softer, but igniting a struggle between Rose and Phil for Peter’s fealty and affection.
The remote ranch house becomes a ticking bomb no amount of blue sky above or wide-open ranges can disarm.
Campion is an incomparable storyteller; it’s an honour to share Jane’s film, with its rich and complex characters, embedded in the stark beauty of Aotearoa and framed by Grant Major’s brilliant production design. The reflection of our own history, depicted in the rugged brutality of American frontier life, will be inescapable to our Kiwi audiences. — Marten Rabarts