The Power of the Dog

04/11/21

Netflix

It’s been twelve years since Jane Campion directed a movie and now here’s The Power of the Dog, a ‘western,’ filmed in her native New Zealand, masquerading as Montana in 1925. It’s an interesting period in which to set a story. On the one hand we have cattle drives, carrying on pretty much as they have since the mid 1800s and, on the other, the streets are full of Ford automobiles, the new era clashing headlong with the old. Ari Wegner’s majestic cinematography recalls the best of John Ford, the machinations of mankind constantly in battle with the awesome wonders of the landscape.

It’s in this world that Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his brother, George (Jesse Plemons), struggle to perpetuate the traditions of their family business, but they are dinosaurs, doomed to yield to the changing times. This is the first film in which writer/director Campion has chosen to feature a male lead and Phil is, perhaps inevitably, the consummate toxic male: cantankerous, vindictive and quick to demolish anybody who offers an alternative to his established way of life. Phil refers to his brother as ‘Fatso’ – to his face – and is not slow to heap disdain on anyone who stands in his path.

When George unexpectedly marries widow Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), Phil is brutally critical of her, particularly when George encourages her to play the piano, something that she protests she’s actually not very good at. (She’s right, she’s not.) To rub salt into the wounds, Phil is an accomplished banjo player.

Rose has a son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who has a predilection for making paper flowers and who is quietly studying to be a surgeon. Phil initially takes every opportunity to belittle him, encouraging the other ranch hands to mock him, because of his supposedly effeminate mannerisms.

But Phil has a secret. He is openly in thrall to the late cowboy Bronco Henry, the man who taught him to ride a horse, a man who he still keeps a shrine to in the stables. But as the story progresses, it’s clear that there was something more between the two of them, something that Phil hides from the eyes of the world. When Phil appears to soften and takes Peter under his wing, the scene is set for a psychological drama with a conclusion that you probably won’t see coming. I certainly don’t. It’s only after the credits have rolled that I’m able to piece the clues together.

Cumberbatch went ‘method’ for this and he inhabits the sweary, sweaty, alpha-male world of Phil Burbank with absolute authority. You’ll almost certainly despise him, which is, I think, Campion’s aim. Smitt-McPhee creates an enigmatic persona as Peter, a boy who keeps his cards close to his chest.

It’s perhaps unfortunate that Dunst’s character feels somewhat overshadowed in this male-dominated world, a woman who will allow herself to be driven to alcoholism rather than stand up for herself. What’s more, Thomasin McKenzie, a rising star after Last Night in Soho, has a thankless role as a housemaid with hardly a line of dialogue. I guess that’s simply a reflection of the era.

Plemons, as the monosyllabic George, is nicely drawn, though he’s mostly absent from the film’s second half and I miss the silent confrontation between the two brothers, where I think the story’s true power lies. Jonny Greenwood – who seems to be popping up all over the place at the moment – submits one of his quirky soundtracks.

Once again, Netflix has backed a winner. The Power of the Dog is a handsome film, expertly created and a genuine pleasure to watch. Cumberbatch has been hotly tipped for an Oscar and it won’t be a huge surprise if it comes to fruition.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

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