THE POWER OF THE DOG
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Director: Jane Campion
Screenwriter: Jane Campion, based on Thomas Savage’s novel
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Thomasin McKenzie
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 12/3/21
Opens: December 1, 2021
Have you ever ridden a horse? If you’re like me, a city dweller, you may have had few opportunities to do so. As a New Yorker I remember that decades ago I took some lessons on Ocean Parkway, right in the middle of Brooklyn where there was a horse path. But it was not the same as riding in wide open spaces. “The Power of the Dog,” set in Montana in 1925, features the same wide open spaces that may be there today as well. The principal characters are ranchers, which means they work hard, but measures well when compared to easy but dull office work. Instead of sitting in a chair all day setting yourself up for an early heart attack, you spend most of your time outside, maybe running cattle. Annie Proulx, in an afterword to Thomas Savage’s novel of the same name, notes “it’s a man’s world of cattle, sheep, horses, dogs, guns, fences and property…men were valued for their abilities with horses. Most ranch diets were home-raised, rustled or hunted meat, potatoes, beans, and coffee swallowed black.” Now there’s a welcome break from our daily anxieties about cholesterol, fat, carbs and sugar!
As we see from Ari Wegner’s awesome cinematography—which in one stretch shows what looks like hundreds of cattle being driven to the railroad perhaps for a trip to Chicago—that this was a land without paved roads, television or radio. No hot showers, telephones or planes. This was the world of novelist Thomas Savage for twenty-one years, so he wrote what he knew. It may be odd that Jane Campion directed such a story of such a world given her “In the Cut” about the culture of Americans in Europe, so apparently unlike Savage, she is directing a world that she had not known.
The culture of ranch life abounds, focusing on two well-to-do ranch owners Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his brother George Burbank (Jesse Plemons) who are called “sir” by the dozen men who work for them and who share fried chicken meals in a local restaurant. They are like so many brothers you may know with completely different personalities. Phil is the Marlboro man; coarse, shunning baths but swimming in the local river; never without boots and spurs which click along as he walks around the living quarters. George looks is more the guy who goes to town to settle business matters with a suit, shirt and bow tie. George takes so much crap from his brother that we wonder how to has time to shovel the manure away from his clothing, but he accepts his fate with a reasonably good spirit.
The only person Phil admits to liking is the late Broncho Henry who taught him ranching. One day while the men are dining in the local saloon run by the widow Rose (Kirsten Dunst) who is helped by her lanky, effeminate son Peter (Smit-McPhee), two events occur. One is the merciless ribbing that Peter takes from Phil to the delight of the men. The other is the brief courtship between George and Rose. Soon enough the dandy rancher and modest proprietor marry—without inviting Phil. This, together with something in Phil’s character about which we learn later, leads to a more damaging ribbing. Phil, believing that Rose married for George’s money, rides her (so to speak) to such an extent that she becomes an alcoholic who one day she passes out in the field.
A perverse tension mounts even more when Phil suddenly becomes the gentle older man to young Peter and wonder: what’s going on? Is Phil looking to get something from the effeminate fellow? Is there genuine, growing affection, or is Phil playing a game but without the outward hostility? The end comes suddenly. Implications are given, the film audience hopefully catching on quickly, a conclusion that leads to Peter’s reading of Psalm 22 in the Bible which goes,
“Deliver me from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dogs.
Rescue me from the mouth of the lions; save me from the horns of the wild oxen.”
The person is crying out to God for help against his enemies’ taunts (and presumably attacks by a vicious ancestor of the pit bull) and ultimately praises the Lord for rescuing him. Do we understand from the psalm that Peter has been oppressed for long periods and seeks deliverance? Or is there something about Phil that has secretly driven him half-crazy, oppressed by his own inner needs?
This film plays with inner demons, something that literature is usually better at portraying. Though Peter is the obvious choice of the oppressed man in the psalm, Phil emerges as the more damaged individual. Rose, too, has been hurt by the loss of her husband and is now tormented as she looks at a life that gives her more access to wealth but less inner peace. Jane Campion has done a solid job of converted the nuances of the novel to the screen in a well-crafted film enjoying solid ensemble performances particularly form Cumberbatch in the lead role, easily changing the king’s English to the rhythms of the American West.
127 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – A-
Acting – A
Technical – B-
Overall – A-