THE POWER OF THE DOG
2021, R, 126 mins.
Benedict Cumberbatch as Phil Burbank / Kirsten Dunst as Rose Gordon-Burbank / Jesse Plemons as George Burbank / Kodi Smit-McPhee as Peter Gordon / Frances Conroy as Old Lady / Keith Carradine as Governor Edward / Thomasin McKenzie as Lola / Genevieve Lemon as Mrs. Lewis / Adam Beach as Edward NappoWritten and directed by Jane Campion, based on the novel by Thomas Savage
The best advice that I could possibly give to you regarding viewing the new Netflix produced THE POWER OF THE DOG is to go into it as cold and as soon as possible, as I surely did.
This early 20th
Century neo-Western - directed with great passion and a keenly observant
eye by Jane Campion, her first film in over a decade - is a most unusual
genre effort (unlike most period westerns of the late 1900s, this one
takes place in 1925 Montana) that fascinatingly plays out as a masterful
game of bait and switch with audiences. Just when you think that you understand this film's rhythms
and story machinations in chronicling frontier masculinity run afoul,
Campion morphs it all into something vastly different about lopsided power
dynamics, combating deeply rooted urges, living in denial, and, most
importantly, revenge served in the most unexpected ways.
THE POWER OF THE DOG is an ultra slow burn affair that respects
rewards audience patience, and when it ended I was convinced that Campion
has re-emerged as a pre-eminent filmmaker with a distinct voice uniquely
her own; it's an easy best of 2021 candidate through and through.
Savage's 1967 novel of the same name, Campion breaks up THE POWER OF THE
DOG into simple Roman numeral titled chapters (compellingly without word
descriptions) to help cover and delineate the passage of time and how time
for these characters acts as a silent symbol of escalating dread.
Early on we're introduced to two bothers in Phil (Benedict
Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons), both of whom are successful
Montana based ranchers in Roaring Twenties era Montana, and even though
they are a fairly well oiled business unit the pair could not be anymore
different. George seems more
urban and refined, whereas Phil seems somewhat trapped within his rural,
cowboy ways and doesn't seem to keen on relinquishing them.
Phil learned how to be a tough talking, no-nonsense cowboy from his
mentor and idol in Bronco Henry, and he lives his philosophy so
aggressively that it makes him almost toxically antisocial in his quick
rejection of just about anyone that comes into his line of sight. If there's a way that Phil can make outsiders feel
uncomfortable then he doesn't hesitate to make them feel it.
This dude is simply the poster boy for macho asshole incarnate.
Hell, even his portly and soft spoken brother in George can't
escape his sibling's monstrous verbal assaults (he calls him
"fatso" an unhealthy amount of time).
It soon becomes
clear to George that he needs to escape from his brother and settle down
with a wife and start a family of his own, and he becomes very easily
smitten with a woman named Rose (Kirsten Dunst) during a fateful dinner
stop one day for Phil and his men. Things start off remarkably awkward, though, as Phil finds
reprehensible ways of mocking not only Rose (as she's serving him and his
men), but he also finds great relish in lashing out at her teenage son,
Peter (Kodi-Smt McPhee), who's an introverted college bound man with a
passion for science that - based on his effeminate manners - just might be
homosexual. George becomes enamored
with Rose, and she in turn reciprocates back, but when George reveals to
Phil that he will marry Rose it infuriates him to no end.
He thinks that Peter is no worthy man to call a stepson and that
Rose is a gold digging opportunist. George
steadfastly defends his new union, despite every effort from his deranged
brother to sabotage it using every foul method at his disposal. A
three way psychological tug of war ensues.
battle waged between these doomed parties is what generate most of the
intense drama of THE POWER OF THE DOG, especially for the lengths that
Phil goes to in order to dismiss and insult Rose and her son at every
waking moment. As George
grows closer and closer to Rose, Phil gets crustier by the second, which
manifests in him extending no consideration to her whatsoever.
Rose, being a relatively meager willed and vulnerable women, does
have the mental fortitude to put up with Phil, which drives her to
becoming an alcoholic, which Phil discovers and tries to weaponize against
her in social settings. Phil's
primary motive in life seems to be dominating and controlling people,
especially those that he perceives (even wrongly and pettily) as some kind
of threat. This cretin is
just relentless in his hostility, which makes much of THE POWER OF THE DOG
so squirm inducing to sit through at times.
This is chiefly evident in one of the best scenes of any film from
this year that has Rose nervously trying to play Strauss' "Radetsky March"
on the piano (to appease George), only then to be utterly embarrassed by
Phil, who can fluently play it with ease on his trusty ol' banjo, making
Rose feel hopelessly beaten down.
As mentioned, THE
POWER OF THE DOG is so methodical in making viewers feel the intense
levels of pure discomfort that Rose experiences, which makes the film
almost Hitchcockian as a pure nerve wracker.
I greatly appreciated how Campion is in no rush to move one scene
too quickly into the next and instead allows these characters (and their
true motivations) slowly emerge organically through the story.
THE POWER OF THE DOG is like an onion that reveals more hidden
dimension and textures as you peel away at it, and Campion's purposely
measured approach is what makes it all simmer with so much low key terror.
Most of the focal point of interest hones in on the most detestable
character here in Phil himself, who's not a one note, moustache twirling
bad guy in a black cowboy hat. There's
a lot of subtext buried beneath his cold and calculating facade, one
that's all about being a ruggedly manly outdoorsman that hopelessly clings
to a lifestyle of old that's becoming outdated with the advancing
industrialized times he occupies. He
seems to love his brother, but wants no part of living a respectable life
of socialized privilege. It's
this collision course of the past and present (and future to come) that
seems to torment Phil the most and leads to his unforgivable actions
perpetrated on those that never deserved it in the first place.
Based on all of
this, one would think that you'd know precisely where Campion is taking
viewers on this ride, but amazingly THE POWER OF THE DOG never dwells
indefinitely on Phil's horrendous mind game tortures that he unleashes on
Rose, and soon the narrative radically changes its focus on him crossing
paths with her young son in Peter. This
section of the film is the hardest to talk about without engaging in major
spoilers (which a shocking number of other reviews of the film have
unfortunately dished out). All
I'll say is that Phil's relationship with Peter definitely does not go
down the type of well worn path that we expect this film to take us on,
and instead the more time Phil spends with this lad - and the secrets that
Peter discovers about Phil's real subjugated thoughts that he has
compartmentalized from everyone - the more all of these characters change
the way that they interact with each other.
The completely unforeseen camaraderie that Phil and Peter develop
only serves to make Rose madder and more driven to the bottle, even though
Phil seems to be wanting to amend for his past indiscretions against these
The way that THE
POWER OF THE DOG torments and teases us with these shifting character
dynamics and arcs is its most brilliant achievement.
Witnessing the nightmarish games of vindictive manipulation that
Phil willfully engages on early in the film that gives way to some
intricate thematic ground about denying your real identity and feeling
trapped within well established gender norms of the era adds a whole added
layer of dramatic complexity to the proceedings.
Complimenting this is how different this Western drama is from so
many others that we've come across as of late or in the past.
Classic Westerns rarely embrace the time and place that typifies
THE POWER OF THE DOG (namely, turn of the last century America) and also
don't place prominence of characters and social norms over action and
Campion's Western certainly feels as lush and sprawling as the best out
there (working with Oscar worthy cinematography by Ari Wegner, Campion
achieves a staggering feat of movie fakery here in shooting on location in
New Zealand - perfectly doubling for Montana - and the sun drenched
panoramic vistas that permeate the screen here are as beautiful as they
are foreboding). Inwardly,
though THE POWER OF THE DOG doesn't play out like an obligatory Western in
any way. Campion's film
unravels into its final sections in a quietly rendered, Biblical toned
ending that divulges a whole new savvy dimension to one character; it's as
understatedly potent of a conclusion as I've seen in quite some time.