This is the kind of film that is best experienced when you have very little information about the story. So with that in mind, I’ll skim on details about the plot and let you discover them on your own.
At the center of the story is a wealthy rancher Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) who lives in Montana with his brother George (Jesse Plemons). Right away it’s evident these two have contrasting personalities. Phil is dominant, crass and brutish while George is a mild-mannered, sensitive soul. The two are close, they even sleep in the same bed in their ranch house, but their bond is thrown off after an encounter with a widow, Rose, who owns a restaurant that he ranchers visit one day.
There is immediate strain between Phil and Rose’s teenage son Peter, who often helps his mom at the restaurant, starting with Phil insulting Peter’s paper flowers that drive him to tears. As fate would have it, George falls for Rose and the two got married. While Peter is away in school and George is on business trips, it’s Rose who has to bear the brunt of Phil’s overt bullying.
The film is the quintessential slo-burn drama with not much action in the first act, but there’s layers upon layers being peeled for those who pay close attention. In fact, I feel like this is the kind of film that’d be more rewarding on subsequent watch as it’s packed with a plethora of details that one might miss the first time around. Jane Campion wrote and directed the film based on Thomas Savage’s novel with such a masterful stroke. There’s an unsettling mood and tension permeating every minute that takes hold of you and wouldn’t let go.
The performances are excellent all around. Starting with Cumberbatch, a refined English gent of an actor who at first glance is a really odd choice to play a tough American cowboy. Yet the fact that he seemed ‘unfit’ for the role actually works in the character’s favor… let’s just say Phil is someone who isn’t comfortable in his own skin, which Campion exploits in Cumberbatch’s performance to great effect.
It’s so great to see the talented Kirsten Dunst in a prominent role, I feel like I haven’t seen her on screen in a while. She embodies the brittle role of a mother so beautifully… and the way she crumbles under Phil’s terrorizing ways is painfully palpable. Kodi Smit-McPhee is an actor I’m not that familiar with but he’s absolutely terrific here in a subtle yet impactful performance. His svelte figure is integral to the story as he becomes the butt of jokes for Phil and the male workers at the ranch who think ranch-living are only for scruffy, brawny men. Jesse Plemons doesn’t have much screen time here but he’s a reliable actor who always deliver a memorable performance.
I love how the film plays with our expectations and in many ways. Phil’s machismo is so exaggerated as if he’s trying to impress that on Rose and Peter, yet the way he practically worships at the altar of late cowboy Bronco Henry whose saddle sits like a shrine in his barn is very telling. The scene where he cleans the leather with such tender loving care is also very telling. I appreciate the subtle and nuanced way things are revealed in due time, a heart-wrenching deconstruction of toxic masculinity by an astute feminist lens.
The visual aesthetic is meticulously crafted in such a way that even the texture and scale tell a story. Earlier in the film, there’s a close shot of paper being strung up in Peter’s room as he’s making those paper flowers, then later in the third act, we see a close shot of sliced-up cow hide hanging which is later used as rope. The visual parallel is absolutely brilliant and literally made me gasp when I realize its significance.
Glad to see a female DP here and Ari Wegner lensed the film beautifully, it’s both elegant and harsh in equal measure, filled with covert visual clues that informs the narrative. I had to look away when Peter stumbled on a decaying dead cattle during a hike, which proves to be an important clue that he’s not as fainthearted as Phil assume him to be.
The setting of 1920s Montana with its vast open land, majestic mountains and lakes is so picturesque it could sub for the state’s travel vlog, except it’s actually filmed in Campion’s hometown of New Zealand. It’s one of those films where the location itself is a character in the film. Johnny Greenwood complements the visuals with his ominous, brooding yet melancholic score. I didn’t realize Greenwood is Radiohead’s guitarist whose score for Phantom Thread was nominated for Oscar.
The Power of The Dog is one of the most potent and haunting psychological drama that really gets under my skin. I find myself thinking about it even weeks after I watched it and recounting some of its layered mystery and meaning. A quiet but tremendous film with plenty of undercurrents beneath the surface. It’s simply exquisite, a word I don’t usually use to describe most films. SPOILER ALERT The title itself refers to a Bible verse (Psalm 22: 20), which is interesting given Campion compared what happened between Peter and Phil to the David vs Goliath story.
This is Campion’s feature film in over a decade (after Bright Star in 2009). I’m not sure why it took her that long in between film projects (apart from her directing work in Top Of The Lake series), but I really hope we won’t have to wait too long for her next one.