Jane Campion’s latest film, an adaptation of Thomas Savage’s The Power of the Dog, is a masterful excavation of the cracks and wrinkles of masculinity, and the ways that men hide from themselves in order to conform.

Set in rural Montana around the turn of the 20th century, it follows the conflict between brothers Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons) as they run their ranch. The brothers’ backstory is intriguing, but it’s skimmed in scant detail, leaving too little meat on the bones of their rivalry. Instead their body language says it all, with Cumberbatch swaggering around, cocksure and bow-legged in chaps, as Plemons sits placidly and faces his brother’s slings and arrows.

There’s a lesser version centred on this fraternal face-off, but Campion’s script is more ambitious, shifting the tension and drama with each chapter. Phil seems ready to explode into violence any minute, but his restraint says something much more profound and intriguing about his character. The dynamic between him and his nephew Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) grows to dominate instead, as Phil attempts to turn Peter into a ‘real’ man, not a “Nancy boy” who “talks like a Victrola” and makes paper flowers for his father’s grave.

If this malleable dynamic keeps the plot surprising, it also forces sacrifices, with Plemons and Kirsten Dunst as his wife, Rose, increasingly sidelined.

Instead, Campion zooms in on the men’s inner desires with close-ups of their craftsmanship and hard labour, a symbolic and sensual shared experience that gets closer than anything to unearthing their emotions.

Under the codes of traditional masculinity, certain feelings are unspeakable, and The Power of the Dog digs deep into these hidden spaces. While Plemons’ unbeatable pokerface possibly goes too far in withholding emotion, Cumberbatch’s silence speaks volumes in a superb performance that leaves you wanting more from such a complex and fascinating character.

RATING: 4/5


INFORMATION

CAST: Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Kirsten Dunst, Thomasin McKenzie

DIRECTOR: Jane Campion

WRITERS: Jane Campion (screenplay by), Thomas Savage (based on the novel by)

SYNOPSIS: Charismatic rancher Phil Burbank inspires fear and awe in those around him. When his brother brings home a new wife and her son, Phil torments them until he finds himself exposed to the possibility of love.