The Power of the Dog
Jane Campion’s return to cinema after 12 years of hiatus makes for a perfect diptych together with her classic masterwork The Piano, but in many ways, it is even better.
The Thomas Savage novel that serves as source employs topics and inter-character relationships that fit very well in Campion’s cinema: an uneasy anti-triangle between a newly married couple and a third man, the presence of the woman’s son from a previous marriage, fragile masculinity, a prominence of non-communication and of implicit meanings… in many ways it bears strong resemblance with The Piano. At the same time, The Power of the Dog is very different. If The Piano employs many of the classic '90s cinematic tropes bound to the novel of manners adaptations (such as Ang Lee's Sense and Senibility or Zeffirelli's Jane Eyre), The Power of the Dog has no such limitations. A very palpable difference can be detected throught the two filmscores: Michael Nyman's rather conventional filmscore for The Piano pales if compared to Johnny Greenwood's less typical score for this film.
Set in the 1920s in Montana (a setting that will be visited next year by Martin Scorsese in Killers of the Flower Moon), the film employs a classic western setting, yet is far from the average western. In an atypical fashion it feels like a novel of manners, centered on the difficult relations between characters. A genre that is often deemed as decaying and outdated is thus refreshened by a sweet new take. Not to mention the beauty of the setting and the production design by Grant Major, the ever presence in indoor scenes of windows that open up to the vast plains that surround the setting.
It is hard to pinpoint a protagonist in this film, but if there is one, it is most likely the very antagonist of the story, Benedict Cumberbatch’s character. Around him and his distrust in his brother’s wife, as well as her teenage son, is the plot centered. He is a fragile masculine character, who hides his fears and weaknesses under a shroud of toughness. Campion’s cinema has often focused on male characters, favouring images of gentler male characters (as is the case with Jesse Plemons’ character) and on female characters affected by the fragility of men (in this case, Kirsten Dunst’s character).
Despite being a slow burn film by definition, The Power of the Dog never bores. The implicit nature of events, the ever presence of a subtext that must be interpreted to the actions makes for a very engaging and active viewing experience.
A true masterpiece among the Netflix produced auteur films, and one of the better films of the year, it is rather disappointing that it has not received more acclaim or awards. This film too belongs to the group of masterpieces such as Spencer, The Hand of God or The Card Counter that competed at Venice for the Golden Lion and were inexplicably bested by a less masterful film. Hopefully, time will give The Power of the Dog justice.