Written by Patrick Hao
For a film set on the plains of 1925 Montana, and shot against the beautiful wide vistas of Jane Campion’s home country of New Zealand, The Power of the Dog often feels hauntingly constrained. That is because Campion’s film is one of intense emotions caused by the unspoken, whether it is because of social mores or simply because they couldn’t.. The great director is no stranger to such themes in her oeuvre. She literally renders her lead character a mute in The Piano.
Reductively, The Power of the Dog has been described as a movie about toxic masculinity. And while that is true, the film is interested in the greater ways the oppressive forces of systems pray on people. The system at play here is never spoken of but is one of class, money, and gender. The film follows the brutish ranch hand Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his entrepreneurial brother George (Jesse Plemons), although you wouldn’t know they were brothers by looking at them. George is clean-shaven but for his mustache, concerned with respectability instilled by their wealthy parents. Phil is covered head to toe in dirt, and happily so. He is cruel, calling his brother Fatso with glee. While George handles business, Phil handles a group of ranch hands. Phil is concerned by how his men think of him which makes him resentful of the wealth he comes from. The push-pull of these two disparate men is palpable. At one point, Phil even describes their kinship as akin to Romulus and Remus.
Their business finds them staying in an inn run by Rose (Kirsten Dunst), who along with her son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) serves the brothers and ranchers dinner one night. While George offers Rose kindness, Phil is outright cruel to the socially awkward Peter. Phil is threatened by Peter allowing himself not to be bound by traditional masculinity. This cruelty eventually extends to Rose, who marries George, as Phil becomes resentful to her as well. A psychological cat and mouse game brews between Phil and Rose, leading to Rose finding solace in alcohol.
One set-piece after the other, Campion unfolds this piece of unnerving cruelty people can inflict on each other. George needs Rose to be a presentable wife to high society. Rose needs to live up to an ideal that she feels unable to reach. Phil too is not entirely the ideal man he wants to be, and as a result, lashes out on everyone around him. Caught in the middle of this struggle is the coming of age tale of Peter. He is intellectual, sweet, and sensitive. But, masculinity threatens to pull him away from his natural disposition. We learn that at one point, Phil used to be an intellectual as well, but strayed away for a life as a cowboy.
Campion moves slowly through these proceedings and it takes a while to truly understand what she is attempting to do. But, Campion is a master of her craft and once she latches on, she does not relent. This is psychological warfare after all, in which the interiority of all these characters gets magnified as the tension ramps. Campion is able to explore a gamut of thoughts just through a simple closeup. This is all underscored by another great score by Jonny Greenwood with his harsh dissonant chords, ratcheting up the tension of these mental tug of wars.
The four central actors, Cumberbatch, Dunst, Smit-McPhee, and Plemons are all exceptional in this four-hander chamber piece, playing off each other. Cumberbatch in particular is physically rigid like a hardened wood, but when he speaks, his voice coils like a python. It is unnerving. Very soon it becomes a psychological Mexican stand-off between the four. With love, tenderness, bitterness, and resentment being the weapons of choice.
By the end of The Power of the Dog, it becomes unsuspectingly devastating. It is as if Campion is able to instill in the viewer the same feelings of repressed emotions the characters are facing. The ache lingers long after the credit rolls.
The Power of the Dog Trailer
The Power of the Dog is currently playing in limited theatrical release and will begin streaming on Netflix on December 1st.