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The Power of the Dog 2021 Movie Review Poster Trailer Online
Twelve years after her last feature, Jane Campion makes a thrilling return with The Power of the Dog, a work as boldly idiosyncratic, unpredictable and alive with psychological complexity as anything in the revered director’s output. For a filmmaker who has predominantly focused on forensic investigations of the female psyche, this riveting adaptation of the 1967 Thomas Savage novel represents an assured thematic shift to corrosive masculinity and repressed sexuality. The intimately uncomfortable drama is a chamber piece on an epic canvas, driven by transfixing performances from Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons and, in a stunning breakout turn, young Australian actor Kodi Smit-McPhee.
Campion has always been an expressive visual filmmaker, getting the most out of collaborations with a number of talented cinematographers. Remote country on New Zealand’s South Island stands in for sparsely populated 1925 Montana in starkly beautiful images captured by DP Ari Wegner (Zola, True History of the Kelly Gang), notable for their striking depth of field and the hypnotic play of light over the mountains. Those aspects reward the big-screen experience, though the thorny psychodrama of four people isolated in a sprawling landscape will be equally enthralling to streaming viewers.
Though Campion made the New York City thriller In the Cut and dissected the social mores of Americans in Europe in The Portrait of a Lady, this kind of fine-grained Americana is entirely new to her and will no doubt draw fresh attention to Savage’s mostly forgotten novel. The time and place are superbly evoked in Grant Major’s production design, dominated by a cattle ranch homestead reminiscent of the Sam Shepard character’s in Days of Heaven, only darker and more oppressively Gothic with its heavy oak interiors, surrounded by grassy plains and backed by mountains.
The place is home to wealthy ranchers the Burbank brothers, who could not be less alike. Phil (Cumberbatch), with his coarse vernacular, is a rugged man of the land, coating himself in mud and swimming naked in a secluded river retreat rather than using the house bath, as his gentlemanly brother, George (Plemons), recommends. While Phil is seldom seen in anything but boots and spurs and dirty sheepskin chaps, George is nattily dressed at all times in tweedy three-piece suits and bow ties. (The character-defining costumes are by Kirsty Cameron.) He takes care of the business side of the ranch, leaving the physical labor to Phil and his cowhands.
They still share a bedroom like children, and “Georgie boy” seems almost immune to the sneering taunts of his brother. Any discussion of their citified parents, referred to as the Old Gent (Peter Carroll) and the Old Lady (Frances Conroy), suggests there has never been much love in the family. Only when Phil speaks of “Bronco Henry,” who taught them the ranching trade and died two decades earlier, does he soften into a kind of haunted reverence that takes on deeper meaning as the story progresses.
In a scene of knife-edge tension early on, George, Phil and the latter’s rowdy crew stop for dinner on a market day at the Red Mill, another eye-catching structure of weather-beaten splendor from designer Major that looks like something out of a Walker Evans photograph. While the restaurant’s pianola and its proximity to the local saloon attract drunks and whores, widowed proprietress Rose (Dunst) strives to keep the place respectable, helped only by her sensitive beanpole son, Peter (Smit-McPhee), who waits tables and makes intricate paper flowers to decorate them.
Such signs of gentility in a place that seems hostile to refinement bring out the worst of Phil’s bullying. His cruel mockery of Peter’s perceived effeminate delicacy, played up for the benefit of his adoring cowhands, prompts the young man to retreat into nervous behavioral tics while reducing Rose to tears. George stays behind after the dinner to apologize for his brother and comfort Rose, marking the beginnings of a gentle romance.
Leaning into the material’s literary origins, Campion breaks up the story into five chapters, marked only by Roman numerals. An unspecified amount of time has passed when the third of them begins, and George’s courtship of Rose has proceeded away from the eyes of his mean-spirited brother. Phil is quietly enraged to learn of their marriage only after the fact, when George brings Rose to live at the mansion. Meanwhile, Peter has begun medical school, following in the footsteps of his doctor father, who took his own life. Phil shares his disgust with his brother in a letter to their mother: “Got himself tangled up with a suicide widow and her half-cooked son.”
George, by contrast, visibly lightens up with the introduction of warmth into his life. “I just wanted to say how nice it is not to be alone,” he tells Rose in one of several scenes where the rapport between real-life partners Dunst and Plemons adds lovely authenticity to the depth of feeling between their characters.
Phil’s malicious campaign to make Rose feel unwelcome and undermine her stability begins by openly calling her a “cheap schemer” and proceeds by ridiculing her nervous efforts at the piano George has purchased to surprise his new wife. Plucking out the same piece — Strauss’ “Radetzky March” — on his banjo with greater dexterity, Phil takes pleasure in signs of her unraveling as she begins drinking, hiding bottles of bourbon around the house. He deliberately humiliates her at a dinner George throws for the governor and his wife (Keith Carradine and Alison Bruce), where Rose also meets her visiting parents-in-law for the first time.
The mounting dread embedded in the narrative and enhanced by the increasingly agitated strings of Jonny Greenwood’s atmospheric score — which is right up there with the Radiohead musician’s powerful work on There Will Be Blood — seems to have set the story on an inevitable trajectory toward sorrow. But Campion keeps shifting expectations, even after Peter comes to stay on his summer break, giving Phil a new target for his cunning psychological assaults.
This is where Smit-McPhee’s layered characterization reveals intriguing surprises; the actor’s edgy scenes with Cumberbatch are among the movie’s most nuanced. When Phil takes Peter under his wing, teaching him to ride a horse and braiding a special rope from cowhide strips for him, it seems at first like a tactic to further distress Rose and ridicule her son for sport. But as Peter stumbles onto evidence that provides a window into Phil’s bitterness, the younger man begins to grow more confident around his unlikely mentor.
The queer undercurrents that ripple throughout the drama are most acutely felt in the taut final chapters. You sense clearly that something terrible is destined to happen, but right up until the startling conclusion, the nature of that tragedy remains unclear. Both Cumberbatch and Smit-McPhee feed the ambiguity over whether hardened Phil has opened himself up to genuine affection or is playing a vicious game — and whether Peter, who has more intelligence and human understanding than anyone gives him credit for, has discovered an affinity with the older man or is manipulating him.
This is an exquisitely crafted film, its unhurried rhythms continually shifting as plangent notes of melancholy, solitude, torment, jealousy and resentment surface. Campion is in full control of her material, digging deep into the turbulent inner life of each of her characters with unerring subtlety.
Cumberbatch hasn’t had a role that makes such stimulating use of his unique qualities as an actor in years. His Phil is a darkly charismatic man, more cultured than he cares to show. He’s cold almost to a reptilian degree but damaged and yearning for something beneath his unfeeling exterior, which emerges in the sad sensuality of his scenes alone by the river. Dunst makes Rose as fragile as fine porcelain, adhering to codes of womanhood imprinted on the era; her spiral into alcoholism and paranoia is quite shattering, as is her palpable fear of every interaction with Phil. Plemons’ George is soft-spoken and even-tempered, initially making him seem weak, but there’s strength and integrity in his refusal to descend to his brother’s toxic level even if his inattention to his wife’s unhappiness points to his unfamiliarity with the workings of a loving relationship. And Smit-McPhee is simply extraordinary, maintaining Peter’s mystery until the very end.
Among the supporting cast, Carradine brings indelible associations with the American West to his brief appearance, while Thomasin McKenzie is a lively presence as a young maid, and longtime Campion collaborator Genevieve Lemon (the star of the director’s first feature, Sweetie) makes the Burbanks’ housekeeper a no-nonsense woman unfazed by her employers’ odd ways.
The title of Savage’s novel comes from Psalm 22:20 in the Bible: “Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog.” That Old Testament prayer for the protection of loved ones from enemies has clear correlations within the story. But the film’s enigmatic qualities are fueled also by a rock formation in the mountains behind the homestead, which only Phil is able to see, until Peter immediately identifies the outline of a barking dog. That mystical element connects the human drama of these four conflicted people to the landscape itself in ways that echo the classic Western while also providing a bracingly modern take on the genre.