The Power of the Dog

In 1925 Montana, adult sibling cattle ranchers Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Burbank (Jesse Plemons) still share a bedroom in their gloomy, towering ranch house.  Phil, who’s in charge of the physical labor, is both solicitous and seemingly contemptuous of his more fastidious brother, who he calls Fatso.   Phil is completely unmoored when George informs him he’s married the widowed proprietress of the Red Mill, Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), whose gangly, effeminate son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) Phil publicly humiliated during a crew dinner.  Phil begins a psychological war in his newly expanded household, literally driving Rose to drink, but is taken aback when he realizes that Pete recognizes “The Power of the Dog.”

Laura's Review: A

‘When my father passed, I wanted nothing more than my mother’s happiness.  For what kind of man would I be if I did not help my mother.  If I did not save her.’  These are the first words we hear, Peter narrating as Campion establishes her setting.  Remember them, because they will come back with a vengeance.

It’s been twelve long years since we were last treated to new work from writer/director Jane Campion ("The Piano," TV's 'The Top of the Lake') on the big screen and boy has she made up for lost time.  Having spent her career focusing on female characters, Campion, adapting Thomas Savage's novel, now looks at one very complicated male, a sexually repressed cowboy whose embrace of his late mentor, Bronco Henry, has soured him on the very idea of femininity.  “The Power of the Dog” is a masterpiece of psychologically intricate subtext unfolding within the majesty of the American West. 

It is notable that at a time when extended families, especially ranching families, lived together, these brothers’ parents (Peter Carroll, Frances Conroy) must travel to visit, something which does not happen until George invites them, along with Governor Edward (Keith Carradine), to meet his wife.  The only women in the household consist of stocky housekeeper Mrs. Lewis (Geneviève Lemon) and her tomboyish help Lola (Thomasin McKenzie).  George bathes indoors and dresses in suits while Phil lets the grime build up then jumps in a creek.  He observes, but does not join, his skinny dipping ranch hands.

George woos Rose quietly, pitching in at her restaurant to wait on tables, complete with the ‘wine drip’ towel draped over his arm that had been one of the things his brother scoffed at.  Their travel back to the ranch is peaceful, he, notably, telling her how nice it is to no longer be alone, but arrival is another matter.  George’s insistence on providing a baby grand for Rose to play pressures her, his evaluation of her talent overblown, a stress factor compounded by Phil’s mocking of her halting progress as he accompanies and outplays her on his banjo from his bedroom above.  Campion once again makes a piano a battle between the sexes.

It is there again, like a weight pulling her beneath the waves, at George’s dinner, one which Phil refuses to attend because George has dared to request he bathe.  Phil makes a late appearance just in time to watch his sister-in-law wither, he whistling the piece she cannot play beneath his breath.  And when George spends frequent amounts of time away, Rose’s drinking escalates, Phil’s whistling a tormenting form of surveillance.

But we’ve seen Phil, too, react oddly, unnerved by the sounds of his brother’s wedding night.  There is the highly suggestive and symbolic polishing of Bronco Henry’s saddle, mounted in a place of honor with a plaque in the barn.  Then Peter, now a medical student, arrives for the summer and Phil has a new avenue for tormenting Rose – he begins to mentor her son, teaching him to ride and braiding him a rawhide rope.

Cumberbatch has never been better, his outward cruelty a defense mechanism for his own past.  Dunst, who initially shows some spine, wilts under the constant oppression, her depiction of spiraling alcoholism leading almost into madness.  Plemons creates an odd duck of a man, compassionate yet struggling to take a stand against his domineering brother, his gentlemanly ways in stark contrast to the ranch’s macho masculinity.  Smit-McPhee gives the slyest performance, subtle hints to his nature, aided by an expert screenplay and Campion’s direction, not fully registering until the film’s powerhouse finale.

The production is stunning, New Zealand standing in for Montana.  Cinematographer Ari Wegner’s ("True History of the Kelly Gang") work is some of the best of the year with her depiction of shafts of light slanting into a valley or clouds creating shadow formations over mountain ridges creating atmosphere.  Her interior lighting, too, portends, Phil’s face glowing from the gloom of an upstairs balcony.  Production Designer Grant Major and his art direction team recreate wooden structures that looked ripped right out of historical photos, the Burbank manse all heavy Gothic gloom.  Jonny Greenwood's edgy score sets themes for Phil and Rose with violin and piano. 

“The Power of the Dog” is the work of a master filmmaker at the top of her powers.  This unsettling film will get under your skin.

Robin's Review: B+

Netflix releases "The Power of the Dog" in theaters on 11/17/21 and on its streaming platform on 12/1/21.