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The Power of the Dog

Power of the Dog

This is so not a Western, and yet... People will be tricked
into thinking it so

dir: Jane Campion


What a film. What a strange, alluring film.

I guarantee you’ve seen no film like it this year, or pretty much any year.

Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a cruel piece of shit. His brother George (Jesse Plemons) is not a cruel piece of shit, but he does put up with a fair amount of abuse. They run a cattle ranch somewhere in Montana (it’s really the south east coast Otago region of New Zealand’s South Island, but, the magic of movies), and they are quite successful at it.

Phil rules the men that work for him with an iron fist, disdaining anything that might be delicate or gentle. He sees some flowers, constructed from paper, and it fills him with loathing and contempt, which he directs at the maker of said flowers, being Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee).

This isn’t, not that his cruelties would be any more justifiable if it were, frontier times or Civil War times or anything, it’s like 1925. The Roaring 20s. What even is this cowboy bullshit when there’s cars and trucks and stuff on the roads?

Phil don’t care. Everything that ever mattered he learned from Bronco Henry, a man we never get to meet, but who looms over Phil’s consciousness all of the time.

George, the other brother, is not like Phil. He doesn’t do the grunt work on the ranch with the grunts in their employ. He dresses fancy, waxes his moustache and schmoozes with, I dunno, governors and mayors and the like. When he sees a woman like the widow Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), or her son Peter, he isn’t filled with an inexplicable rage. Instead he sees some gentle folk who he could have a life with, much to Phil’s disgust.

Every review you might read, including this one here, keep talking about what a cruel sonofabitch Phil is, but none of the reviews can really capture the extent of it, despite the fact that his cruelty is not like, I dunno, Hannibal Lecter or anything. He never physically threatens her, and rarely if ever speaks to her. But he finds his ways, he does, of making her feel worthless.

Considering Jane Campion’s history with pianos, seeing a piano and a piece of music used as a weapon like this is kinda stunning. A single piece of music, the Radetzky March by Strauss, in Rose’s hands, is tentative, stop-start, halting, uncertain, afraid. Phil, hearing the piece being butchered so, picks up his banjo, and confidently, brutally turns that music into something he can torment her with, somehow. Plucking a few notes later on, or even whistling the tune, is enough to crush the poor woman.

Hasn’t she suffered enough? Her previous husband committed suicide, leaving her to try to run a restaurant of sorts, with Peter’s help, but then the taunts and insults against her son wound her deeply. When George finds her sobbing, he finds a person he wants to protect, so that he’s not lonely in this world either.

Of course, one of the earliest scenes in the flick is of George and Phil hopping in to bed together for a good night’s sleep. We are to assume that Phil doesn’t approve when George decides he’d rather sleep in a bed with his wife.

You might think you know where the story is going with Phil, who is so hyper-aggressive and controlling that you just know what’s coming, but you don’t really know what’s coming. I mean, Phil hiding his “true” nature under a veneer of coarseness and cruelty fits the kinds of patterns we have come to expect, but this isn’t a flick about a closeted jerk coming to terms with himself or with the world.

No, even though Phil occupies almost all the running time and starts living in our heads rent-free, like he does with poor Rose, he might not actually be the protagonist of the film.

That would be Peter, who though pale, awkward and somewhat bird-like, is highly intelligent, and very much capable of seeing a long term project through. Phil thinks he senses in him the same thing that Peter senses about Phil, but they have very different long term goals.

I’m not going to spoil any more about that aspect of the film, but wow, when the shift happens, it really happens.

Benedict Cumberbatch has played emotionally repressed cruel jerks before, in fact, you could argue that that’s his career, but none of the other characters I’ve seen him play are like this one of Phil. There are confusing layers to this monster. He never earns our sympathy, but he is not without his virtues. It’s a magnetic performance without it being a charismatic character, somehow. It’s strange that he’s so repellent yet fascinating.

Kodi Smit-McPhee is one of those rare Australian actors who was amazing as a child actor (Romulus, My Father, The Road, Let Me In, which was a really keen remake of the Swedish vampire flick Let the Right One In) who has transitioned to being a decent actor as an adult without killing anyone in a drunken car crash or becoming a member of a cult. He is phenomenal here. It’s a strength of the film that he, too, as Peter does not go out of his way to earn our sympathies either. In his own ways he’s just as entrancing and just as off-putting as Phil is.

It’s not impossible to parse out what Jane Campion might be saying about masculinity here, because she’s been saying something similar about it for decades, but in some ways she could also just be taking the piss a bit, so to speak. The line between hyper-masculinity and homoeroticism is indeed a blurry one. I cannot think of, despite how deceptive it ultimately ends up being, any scene in any film this year as seductive or as erotically charged as the scene where Phil and Peter share a smoke.

It’s a credit to them and to everyone involved that it works so well. Jesse Plemons is all well and good in the less showy role of George, but his character inexplicably disappears from the narrative for long stretches, mostly only to leave Rose most vulnerable to Phil’s malign energies. I did not know, until this film appeared and that people started talking about them, that Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst are a couple in real life. They even have two boys together. Good for them.

It's not a great role for her, here. She starts off fearful, is then broken, and then she’s just drunk for the rest of the film. I didn’t want anything bad to happen to her, but then I don’t really want anything bad to happen to anyone ever, but her character here serves a purpose, as someone to defend, rather than as someone who exists and does stuff for either our amusement or bemusement. She’s okay, though.

Far too much of the film’s energies are focused on, or come from, Phil. In a different flick that would unbalance things or make it too ponderous, but once he has a decent foil (and the character’s entire focus seems to 180 from irredeemable prick to supportive mentor) in Peter, the film becomes transcendent.

It looks amazing, thanks to Australian cinematographer Ari Wegner, has a great score that I was sure was another Warren Ellis / Nick Cave collaboration, but turned out to be Jonny Greenwood, but in case anything I’ve written makes this sound like a redemptive feel good movie, I assure you it is nothing of the sort. It’s a wry, nasty film, with a few moments of grace to carry us through.

8 times I assure you the dog has no power over me except at meal times out of 10

“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?” – what indeed - The Power of the Dog