- Courtesy Of Kirsty Griffin/Netflix
- UNeasy rider Cumberbatch plays a troubled Montana rancher in Campion's compelling literary adaptation.
Nearly 30 years ago, writer-director Jane Campion won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival for The Piano. Now the writer-director brings us a new period drama in a similarly harsh setting. The Power of the Dog, which earned Campion the Silver Lion at the 2021 Venice International Film Festival, was filmed in the director's native New Zealand. It's set in the American West, however, and based on Thomas Savage's 1967 novel of the same name. Stream it on Netflix.
In 1925 Montana, the Burbank brothers run a prosperous cattle ranch. George (Jesse Plemons) is quiet and unflappable, while Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a tinderbox of volatile emotions, continually trying to provoke his brother and whoever else is around.
When the two visit town during a cattle drive, Phil cruelly bullies young Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), the studious son of Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), the widow who owns the local inn. Apologizing for his brother's rudeness, George hits it off with Rose, and soon the two are married.
But when George brings his bride and stepson home to the ranch, the real trouble starts.
Will you like it?
The Power of the Dog is a visually stunning film from its first shot: a luminous, otherworldly view of tawny hills framed by the windows of a dim interior. That visual opposition sets up a thematic one: the domestic sphere where Rose presides versus the rough outdoors where Phil and his cowhands are at home. But the opening interior/exterior contrast is also a warning to the viewer not to make hasty assumptions about the characters' inner lives based on appearances.
It's tough to adapt a literary work in which so much of the "action" is interior. The Lost Daughter, an upcoming Netflix release, is a case in point: Director Maggie Gyllenhaal struggles to capture the inner conflicts that Elena Ferrante conveys so well in the source novel with her tart narration.
Like that film, The Power of the Dog is bound to frustrate some viewers with its indirectness and occasional opacity. The screenplay is sparse, each line freighted with meaning. When George tells Rose that she has rescued him from loneliness, for instance, we suddenly grasp how unhappy he is with his brother's company. But not until later do we begin truly to understand the reasons for the tension between the siblings or for the mountain-high chip on Phil's shoulder.
It takes time, patience and many beautifully shot, elliptical scenes of Phil doing ranch chores for us to unpuzzle the man's motives. Even then, we may suspect that we don't understand him as well as we'd like to.
Early in his novel, Savage writes of Phil that "his habits and appearance required strangers to alter their conception of an aristocrat to one who can afford to be himself." With his angular body and dangerously gleaming eyes, Cumberbatch fully embodies that notion of aristocracy as idiosyncrasy. Far from a romantic "bad boy," Phil is a genuine original. Beside him, George and Rose seem pasty, conventional and clueless; only Peter is capable of matching him.
The differences between The Piano and The Power of the Dog may actually be more salient than the similarities. While the former is a psychodrama of forbidden love that builds to a harrowing, unforgettable climax, the latter is a cat-and-mouse game whose climax is as subtle as a whisper.
The title of the film and novel comes from a psalm that evokes the power of evil, but it's never clear who represents good or evil here. As the conflict between Phil and Rose evolves into one between Phil and Peter, our perspective shifts, too, and we see the characters in a whole new light. By then, though, a destructive spiral of events is already in motion.
Because of this continual shifting, The Power of the Dog engages viewers more on the intellectual and visual levels than the emotional one. Frequent drone shots distance us from the characters, reminding us that the natural world dwarfs us all.
While the movie offers little in the way of catharsis, it's an undeniably powerful experience, as stark as those hills from the first shot. They form a canvas for the play of light and shadow from passing clouds. By the end of Campion's film, we may feel as if a cloud heavy with mystery and foreboding has passed over us, too.
If you like this, try...
The Piano (1993; Netflix, rentable): In Campion's breakthrough period drama, a pianist is forced into marriage with a New Zealander. Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin won Oscars for their roles as mother and daughter.
Brokeback Mountain (2005; Peacock, IMDb TV, rentable): It's not easy to find westerns whose male leads combine ruggedness with tenderness, but Ang Lee's adaptation of Annie Proulx's short story is another one. (Proulx wrote an admiring afterword to Savage's novel.)
There Will Be Blood (2007; Pluto TV, Netflix, rentable): In staging the clash of two strong characters who represent opposite types, Campion invites comparison with writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson. Daniel Day-Lewis' oil prospector character resembles Phil Burbank in his fierce eccentricity.