In its New York premiere at the 59th New York Film Festival, Jane Campion’s Power of the Dog enthralls. Initially, the film appears to be a Western about the rough, crude life of Montana ranchers and cowboys in 1925. However, Campion’s adaptation of Thomas Savage’s 1967 cult novel is at its heart is a psychological portrait of repressed sexuality.
The film highlights the differences between the two Burbank brothers, who run a cattle ranch in the isolated Montana hills. The filmmaker gradually unravels why Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons) don’t get along. Phil’s persona of brutal, raw power inspires fear and loathing. On the other hand, George manifests gentleness, kindness and sensitivity.
Attempting to prove his strength and dominance, Phil insults everyone, his brother most of all. The facade establishes his reputation with his workers as a manly man. Patiently, George suffers his brother’s wrath and ill will. Whenever the opportunity arises, Phil shows up George as the weaker brother. One of the initial mysteries is why Phil emotionally abuses George and why George, the strong, silent type, puts up with it.
Unexpected revelations underscore the whys. Indeed, the entrance of the lonely young widow Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst) triggers an unraveling of the brothers. With Rose comes her son, the insular, sensitive 20-something Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee).
Rose runs a restaurant with Peter’s help. When Phil, George and their cowhands have dinner there, Phil ridicules Peter by calling attention to his femininity. Heroically, George stands up for Peter. Afterward, Rose and George form a bond that ends in marriage. Immediately, Rose moves in to the Burbanks’ well-appointed home, despite Phil’s disgust. Phil’s anger and isolation noticeably augment.
Thus begins the battle of wills among Rose, Peter and Phil. Asserting his intelligence, knowledge, superiority and leadership in running the ranch, Phil makes Rose feel unworthy of her marriage to George. While Peter goes away to college to study becoming a doctor and surgeon, Rose devolves into alcoholism. George remains patient and cares for her when she collapses mentally and emotionally from Phil’s malevolent torment.
The psychological sadism of Phil’s tyranny interestingly contrasts with the beauty of the Montana hills where he finds refuge. Campion features the gorgeous vast landscape in panoramic wide shots. The austere, remarkable scenes of nature reveal Phil’s sensitivity. Benedict Cumberbatch portrays Phil with evocative brilliance.
With an attention to landscapes, Campion features the dusty, desolate, treeless ranch as a place of insularity, loneliness and isolation. In that setting Phil puts on the persona of masculinity to hide his homosexual impulses. Only in the green sanctuary of the bathing pool, do we recognize Phil’s repressed vulnerable, homosexual side.
Campion’s beautiful, profound, complicated portrait of these individuals haunts. Her choice of scenic design and cinematography and the music score by Jonny Greenwood foreshadow the danger of violence that swirls in undercurrents throughout. And when the finality of the tragedy unfolds, it comes as an anticlimactic understatement. Phil’s rage finds its target and slams into it with a vengeance that not even his intelligence can prevent.
This must-see film thrills for its performances by Cumberbatch, Dunst, Plemons and Smit-McPhee. Campion’s storytelling conveys darkness and foreboding that thrills until the end. Finally, the twists of plot, the cinematic beauty, the mystery, suspense and danger keep the audience immersed in anticipation. Look for The Power of the Dog on Netflix.