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The Power of the Dog – movie review

Movie: The Power of the Dog |                          

Released: December 2021 |

Rating 4.0 stars

Jane Campion hasn’t made a movie since Bright Star, which was released in 2009. She’s gone off making a few mini-series in the meantime with varied levels of success. So this return to the big screen has been much anticipated. Having seen the trailer at the cinema we were very keen to watch it.

This movie is Campion’s adaptation of the 1967 novel of the same name by author Thomas Savage who was known for his Western novels. This one draws from his early experiences growing up in the American West.

As with her previous work, this latest film opus continues her exploration of the power play, oppression and servitude between the genders. In this case the setting is 1925; on a cattle ranch in the mountains of Montana. It’s a typical cowboy setting, rife with displays of male bravado and machismo.

The story centres on the wealthy Burbank brothers who run their family cattle ranch with their ranch hands. The brothers are close, even sharing a bed in their home, but so different in temperament. Phil Burgess exudes an acerbic gruffness and overt brutishness, offensively referring to his brother as “fatso” and refusing to wash, while the more gentlemanly George likes to dress up for dinner and appreciates the nicer things in life.

The drama starts to unfold when Phil and George, along with their ranch team, visit the nearby Red Mill restaurant run by widow Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst). Her seemingly fragile and effeminate son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who makes paper flowers for the tables and helps her with the waiting duties, is humiliated by Phil for his lack of manliness, which in turn upsets his mother. 

George empathises with Rose, taking a liking to her. He comforts and courts her and then swiftly proposes marriage. This throws the relationship between the brothers off balance and Rose becomes the subject of Phil’s oppressive taunting. We see glimpses of his musical abilities and softer side, while watching Rose’s spiral into alcoholism because of his uncomfortable presence and constant taunting. Phil’s plays the banjo and his ability to pluck the very tune Rose struggles to get right on her grand piano is a constant jab to her legitimacy as wife to his brother. No wonder she reaches for the bottle she has stashed away in various corners of the house as a coping mechanism.

Benedict Cumberbatch puts on a convincing swagger and an accent playing Phil Burgess. He has a dominating presence, constantly referring to his now-deceased mentor Bronco Henry with great reverence. With his overt display of machismo and an extreme homophobia, we can’t help but suspect that it might be a diversion or compensation for some deeper underlying social issues. What was this hero-worshipping of Bronco Henry all about?

George Burgess is played by Jesse Plemons, who suitably counterbalances his brother’s male toxicity with a gentleness. We also detect a certain chemisty between Jesse and Kirsten, who happens to be his real-life partner; they have just had their second child in May 2021.

The title of the novel and movie comes from the biblical verse Psalm 22:20: “Deliver me from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dog.”

The story takes on a different turn when Phil appears to soften his stance towards Peter, befriending and even nurturing the latter as his own potential prodigy, and we wonder if this will expose his weakness. Instead, the tables are turned and, in a most unexpected David vs. Goliath twist, it seems the bright young boy may have found a way to neutralise the bad power (of the dog?) troubling the toxic household.

The film is well crafted, the polished product aided by stunning cinematography, shot by Ari Wegner in New Zealand with its South Island landscapes passing off for Montana. The music score by Jonny Greenwood, who has also scored for The Phantom Thread and There Will Be Blood, adds to the dramatic tension and foreboding as the story unfolds.

The film won Campion a Silver Lion for Best Direction at the Venice Film Festival. With Oscar season coming up we can’t help wondering if it will emerge as a contender for a few, (i.e. direction, acting and cinematography) awards.