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The Power of the Dog

"beautiful, nuanced and blazingly intelligent"

★★★★½ - STUFF 

- Jane Campion's wonderful slow-burning, sleight-of-hand - 

The year is 1925 and we are in rural Montana. The nearest town – Beech – is an hour or two by horse and not much less by wheezing Model T Ford.

On the ranch that has been passed down to them through their family, the Burbank brothers – George and Phil – are as different as night and day.

George is kindly, soft of body and heart, not really cut out for the life of a rancher, but good enough with the figures and the management of men to make a success of it anyway. Phil, meanwhile, is as lean as a whip and many times more dangerous. Phil can break a horse, castrate a steer and size up a man with a glance. While George is an open book to everyone who meets him, Phil keeps his secrets – his own intelligence, especially – very, very close to his chest.

And chief among Phil's secrets, or at least the thing he mentions in a superficial way so often that it can only contain a secret that is longing to escape, is his friendship with a man called Bronco, long dead, whose, err, saddle he polishes at night, when the company of George or anyone else is too maddening for Phil to tolerate.

Meanwhile, Rose runs a restaurant and boarding house in Beech. When Phil, George and their crew of ranch hands descend for a noisy dinner, Phil seizes on the opportunity to torment and tease Rose's son, Peter. George takes his chance to visit Rose and apologise – and soon the pair are married. And so Phil and George's settled – if wildly dysfunctional – symbiosis is about to be prised apart by a widow and the introverted and anxiety-ridden Peter.

This won't end well.

The Power of the Dog is Jane Campion's first trip onto the big screen in 12 years. With it, she revisits at least some of the themes that underpinned The Piano three decades ago. Campion even gifts us a quick scene of burly men struggling to carry a piano through mud, just in case anyone should miss the connection.

While George and – especially – Phil might think themselves the lords of this household and the lands that surround it, Campion points us often at what matters. It is George and Phil's “old lady” who rules this place, from afar. While none of it would function at all, if it weren't for the ferocious Mrs Lewis in her kitchen, rousing and feeding the crew, while Phil flatters himself it is his wit and skill that keeps them loyal to the ranch.

The Power of the Dog is a slow-burn and a film of many, many layers. The story twists and turns towards a few possible endings – and ways to an ending – but, like Phil, Campion keeps its truest story hidden in plain sight, only resolving itself and letting us in to what has really been going on in the very last scenes. This is a wonderful exercise in sleight-of-hand by Campion, aided immensely by a cast who all seem destined to get their due when awards season rolls around in the new year.

Benedict Cumberbatch must be a short favourite for an Oscar at least, to add to his collection of Baftas and Emmys. His Phil runs the gamut from madder-than-a-sack-of-wasps to painfully vulnerable and tender when he finally reaches out for a human connection. It is a beautiful, nuanced and blazingly intelligent piece of work that will surely be recognised and rewarded.

Next to Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst are solid, adaptable, mutable and endlessly watchable as George and Rose, drawn into Phil's orbit by his cruelty and then held there by their own decency and demons.

The breakout here might be Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Road) as Peter. Nowadays, we would stick a pin on a graph and label Peter as “autistic” or “having Asperger’s”. But in 1920s Montana, he is simply referred to as “half-cooked” and possibly “simple”. Smit-McPhee peels back the layers of Peter very gently, so that we barely notice as he transforms into something very different to the world's view of him. It is startlingly well done, with Campion's script and direction guiding him every step of the way.

Ari Wegner's (Stray) cinematography and Jonny Greenwood's score are both wonderful, with Wegner's camera absolutely feasting on the Otago light and landscapes. (Oh yes, Power of the Dog was made right here, in Aotearoa, New Zealand.)

The Power of the Dog is a great film. If you have the chance to see it on a cinema screen, with a proper sound system, go.

Graeme Tuckett, STUFF

The Power of the Dog (R13) is now playing at Light House Cinema!

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