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The Power of the Dog

The Power of the Dog (2021)

If one is familiar with the Biblical quote: “Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog” (Psalm 22:20), or pays attention to the singular pertinent opening voice-over, then the ending twist in The Power of the Dog has been suggested.

Two brothers who own a Montana ranch --Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch), an intense and scruffy bully; and George (Jesse Plemons), the shy, mannered business tender of the ranch-- have a monkey wrench thrown into their well worn relationship when George falls for, and marries the widow Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst) who owns a frontier restaurant that is visited by the brothers and ranch hands during a cattle drive. George soon falls for and marries Rose, and brings her and her effeminate son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) home to the ranch.

Phil immediately resents Rose, and commences to try to ridicule and intimidate her. George is often away on business trips, leaving frequent opportunities for Phil to browbeat Rose. In addition both Phil and the ranch hands taunt Peter’s effeminate manor, activities, and clothes, although Peter seems content to ignore it. As a result of her predicament Rose takes to the bottle, and spends more time sheltered away in her bedroom.

However after awhile Phil suddenly takes an interest in Peter to the extent that he sets about showing him the ways of a cowboy in the manor that Phil learned from his deceased hero, Bronco Henry. Peter does learn to ride and wrangle, and takes some ranch survey trips with Phil. However Rose is suspicious and fearful that Phil has harmful intentions for Peter. Nevertheless her anxiety turns out to be unnecessary as the drama rolls into the final act.

To my taste the production excelled over the story. The facets that struck me most were the set design, costume design, and the cinematography of Ari Wegner. The picture didn’t quite rise to the epic level that the producers likely had in mind. Slow pacing in itself does not enhance nor promote majesty. Outside of the use of sweeping vistas and one scene of a large cattle drive, the picture was too confined to be a broad saga.

In truth the film has a similar atmosphere to There Will Be Blood (2007). There was the same underlying feel of dread and tension which was enhanced by Johnny Greenwood’s unusual musical score, who likewise scored TWBB. Also Phil’s character was reminiscent of Daniel Day-Lewis’ Daniel Plainview in that picture. In fact I’d love to have seen Day-Lewis in Phil’s part. He would have been more consistent and believable portraying a flaky bully who tries to wreck a marriage. Cumberbatch’s previous memorable portrayals of various dandies, homosexuals, tortured scientists, and the like were a negative drag on his believability in this part. He could have used more swagger in this role.

Kirsten Dunst was superb as the wife thrust into the middle of an emotional triangle, who is not able to bear the pressure or to change her situation. That it’s not possible for a teetotalling innkeeper to degenerate into a closet alcoholic in a few week’s time does not detract from Dunst’s excellent portrayal. We can feel her anguish as she’s thrust into an impossible conflict.

Likewise Jesse Plemons provided solid and believable work representing the brother who does not like confrontation, who just wants everything to work out, and who believes that his wife is much stronger than she is. Kodi Smit-McPhee shines as Peter, the delicate son who prefers art and the study of medicine. One of the important focus points in the story, he turns out to be different than we expect.

I haven’t read the 1967 book by Thomas Savage, so it’s unknown how closely screenwriter/director Jane Campion stuck to it. The themes that were featured in the book that were fresh in 1967 are actually somewhat trite in 2021, and seemed relatively familiar. Still, it must have been a complex project to distill a lengthy novel down to a two hour film. Campion chose her home country of New Zealand to represent Montana, which visually served the movie well. Her work doesn’t quite carry the punch of her Oscar winning The Piano (1993), but here her efforts have fashioned a watchable if not memorable film which will surely attract some awards.

Available on Netfilx.

Doc’s rating: 7/10