“The Power of the Dog” (2021) starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, & Kodi Smit-McPhee

SPOILERS: Don’t read this post if you haven’t seen, or don’t want to know, details from the movie (now streaming on Netflix).

Peter: 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?

In 1925 in Montana, wealthy rancher, Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch), inspires fear and awe in those around him. His younger brother, George (Jesse Plemons), marries a hard-working widow- Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst)- who has a sensitive young adult son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Resenting the changes in his home, Phil acts cruel to both Rose and Peter (when he comes home from college in the Summer). Phil tells Rose he thinks she’s a gold-digger. He bullies Peter (effeminate and introverted), and the cowhands follow his lead. After some time, Phil takes Peter under his wing, showing him the ways of the ranch.

George (to Rose): I just want to say… how nice it is not to be alone.

Jane Campion won an original screenplay Oscar for The Piano (1993); she was only the second woman to receive a nomination as Best Director. I haven’t seen that film in many years, but I did like it. I had also previously watched In the Cut (2003) and blogged re: S1 of Campion’s TV show (Top of the Lake). The ranch house and cattle barn (aged to reflect the 1920s) were constructed on location. Filming began in January 2020; due to the COVID pandemic, it was halted until late June. Many critics have pointed out that this film is Campion’s 1st w/ a lead male character. The original book was written in 1967 by an American author (Thomas Savage) who was known for Westerns; he was a closeted gay man who married and had children.

Phil Burbank: Bronco Henry told me that a man was made by patience in the odds against him.

This is a departure for Cumberbatch; I thought he did quite well portraying a macho cowboy (who is hiding his true self). Though Plemons and Dunst are engaged and have two young sons, they have a awkward (yet promising) chemistry in their early scenes. George and Rose are two lonely people who just decided NOT to be alone anymore; I wanted to see more of them (esp. Rose after she becomes alcoholic). Smit-McPhee (an Aussie actor, 25 y.o.) is getting a LOT of notice; he could be nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. He has an other-worldly look and creates an unique character; he and Cumberbatch share a few tense scenes. I thought much more would happen between them (such as violence), BUT this film subverts expectations. What exactly happened btwn the younger Phil and his older/beloved mentor Bronco Henry? Phil idolizes Bronco Henry (20 yrs. after his death); he’s held up as the ideal cowboy/man.

As one critic said, the tone of this movie is like than in The Beguiled. The pacing is V slow, which many viewers (esp. on Twitter) joked about. The score for this film is rather unnerving; I thought it was overmuch in some scenes. Phil whistles a song which Rose can’t play well; she’d gotten a grand piano from George (who wants them to mix more w/ society). Phil then plays the same song on his banjo, taunting Rose further. Though some have called the ending “ambiguous,” I knew Peter weaponized the anthrax (which had infected the dead cow he found on the road), then planned the death of Phil. If you have some time and a LOT of patience, then check this film out.

[1] It’s a slow burn especially in the first half. While I find these characters compelling, I do wish to have more reasons for these characters. I need their history.

[2] Campion lets her camera linger on the outward expressions of inner struggle and the vast landscape, which promises to bury one’s secrets, but doesn’t.

[3] “The Power of the Dog” reinforces what I already knew – male macho posturing and bullying is usually a desperate attempt to disguise feelings of inadequacy and self doubt. Though set in 1923, the film is so clearly about now…

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

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