Often believed dead, the western is one of the oldest and most formative genres that had its heyday over several decades in the middle of the 20th century. Where the conquest of unpopulated land, the enforcement of law and order or the confrontation of newcomers and indigenous people used to be central stories and were often accompanied by cowboys, sheriffs, drawn guns and violent shootings, the Netflix production “The Power of the Dog “Once again shows the variability of this distinctive genre. Based on the novel by Thomas Savage published in 1967, the new work by director Jane Campion, whose last feature film was over 10 years ago, approaches its theme in the impressive expanse of a wild and harsh mountain landscape in a rather untypical way: touchingly gentle, incredibly subtle and surprisingly contemporary.
by Madeleine Eger
The Burbank brothers have been running the ranch in Montana for 25 years. While Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) looks after the herd, George (Jesse Plemmons) maintains the necessary business contacts. However, when George met Rose (Kirsten Dunst), she married and she and her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) moved into the common house of the brothers, the structured world of the cowboy began to shake. Because the latter gradually sees himself exposed to feelings that he has not kept hidden for no reason.
Under the Montana sun, huge clouds cast their dark shadows over the nearby mountain range. The large house of the ranch sits enthroned on the gleaming gold plain, where the steppe grass sways playfully and hypnotically through the wind. Although Phil and George look after a large herd of cows and several men take part in the work, the seclusion and loneliness can be felt in the apparent idyll. Breathtaking, glowing images of the landscape stand in stark contrast to the dark interior of the ranch house, which appears oppressive, cool and powerful, even in the first few minutes. The setting of the western drama is not the only contrast that is impressively illustrated in “The Power of the Dog” and which, thanks to the strong imagery, can be ascribed a much deeper meaning.
“The Power of the Dog” is a film full of ambivalences that contrasts its four main characters in different constellations and deliberately unfolds their character complexity by means of the visual and acoustic design. The inequality of the brothers, but also the smoldering dispute between the opposing characters Rose and Phil, can be read, for example, from the accompanying piano and the string instruments. The discrepancy that the rough but charismatic man carries deep inside him becomes particularly clear with the fantastic score by Jonny Greenwood. Greenwood, who already composed the music for “The Master” and “Der Seidene Faden”, often creates acoustic moments that stir up fear, track down pains that almost tear you apart or bring to light a heavy melancholy and grief with which you are faced the unapproachable character would hardly have expected.
Because Phil, who rarely deals with people when it doesn’t have to be for work, seems to find it difficult to come to terms with the past, to deal with losses and therefore hides behind a facade of suspicion, ridicule and hypothermic distance. Only when he braids a rope, for example, and he pulls the leather strips energetically but with a feeling for the material very close to his hip or he spends time alone at the lake and the camera captures these moments with tangible intimacy, does a strictly suppressed passion decipher, Sensitivity and even sensuality. The fact that his late mentor Bronco seems to have been more than a friend is more evident in “The Power of the Dog” between the lines than that the film takes paths like “Brokeback Mountain” and discusses the sexuality of its characters more openly. From many small puzzle pieces, such as a queer magazine or the indulgent moment with a piece of cloth, an image of a man who keeps a secret is formed, whose restraint, aloofness and idea of masculinity gain clarity as a result.
The clearer the view of Phil becomes, the more painful the interactions between him and his fellow human beings become. The threatening presence that the cowboy brings with him and is sometimes caught only fleetingly in the form of heavy boots hitting the cold wooden floor creates uncertainty, helplessness and even naked fear. A sometimes oppressive dynamic develops that interrupts the director and creates a surprising arc to her short opening monologue, which has almost been forgotten due to the sensitive and attention-grabbing narrative. Because while you let yourself be guided slowly through the vastness of Montana and witness an interplay of characters who all have to struggle with suppressed emotions and never find the opportunity to communicate their feelings clearly, “The Power of the Dog” steers in on insidious end to which one would not have expected in the form.
“The Power of the Dog” is a demanding film that almost hides its multi-layered core behind breathtaking images and numerous small gestures. Jane Campion works subtly between the lines to create a grandiose, deeply moving drama that tells in its own unique way of being trapped in rural freedom. Since 19.11. in the cinema, from 1.12. on Netflix.
Image: (c) Netflix