The Power of the Dog

Rating: ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Categorisation: Alternative Western

Availability: In cinemas and on Netflix from 1 December

Plot: New Zealand director Jane Campion created The Power of the Dog, based on Thomas Savages’s 1967 novel of the same name. It’s a Western of sorts. Brothers Phil and George are cattle-ranchers in Montana, and they couldn’t be more different. Phil, cruel and mean, looks every bit the archetypal cowboy. George, gentle and softly spoken, wears a business suit even as as he rides across the Montana plains on horseback. The younger of the two, George has clearly experienced his fair share of bullying from Phil over the years, and there’s no doubt about the pecking order in this family. After days of herding their cattle to the railhead, they stop with their ranch-hands at a Wild West town where Rosie, the boarding house proprietor, has prepared rooms for them. In the dining room Rosie’s effeminate teenage son, Peter, waits on the tables. There is an air of menace as alpha male Phil cruelly ridicules the boy whose paper flowers adorn the tables. Phil’s taunting of her son distresses Rose, unintentionally setting the scene for George to comfort her. Romance blossoms, and Phil is appalled and angry when George brings Rose back as his wife to live with them in their rambling mansion. Seeing Rose as a gold-digger, Phil maliciously persecutes her. Later, when Peter visits from university where he is now studying to be a doctor, Rose fears for the safety of her son.   

Cast: Four main characters drive the action in this film, Benedict Cumberbatch as Phil, Jessie Plemons as George, Kirsten Dunst as Rose, and Kodi Smit-McPhee as Peter. Married in real life as well as onscreen, Dunst and Plemons bring a lovely tenderness to their relationship, and in different ways, they poignantly express the crushing effects of Phil’s bullying domination. It is nevertheless Cumberbatch and Smit-McPhee, in their compelling performances of the bully and the bullied, that truly stand out. It wouldn’t surprise me if they are both recognised in upcoming awards.     

Filming and Setting: Filmed in New Zealand, the cinematography is stunning. The physical landscape of Central Otago is spectacular and we get a real sense of the rugged existence of life on a cattle ranch in 1920s Montana – although I expect only a Montanan would be able to say with certainty whether Campion manages to pull this off. Skilful in capturing the beauty of the physical landscape, Campion is also an expert in depicting emotional landscapes. She maintains a tense and suspenseful atmosphere throughout, constantly paring back the dialogue until she exposes the raw essences of the characters’ emotional frames – wordlessly, Phil’s banjo torments Rose as she deteriorates into alcoholism; a human wolf pack, controlled and suppressed by Phil, chillingly encircles its prey. It’s quality filmmaking, (despite the faux pas with the fence posts).

Personal Comments: The Power of the Dog is impactful and unsettling. Full of symbolism, it’s languid and multilayered plot has scenes that are at times sensuous, and at other times abhorrent. Then, just when you think you know what’s going on, Campion pulls the rug from under your feet, making you want to watch it again to discover, if you haven’t already, the trail of breadcrumbs she’s skilfully left in her wake. It’s one of her best films. While it is due to be released on Netflix soon, you may want to see it on the big screen as this will show its expansive and beautiful cinematography to full effect.

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