Benedict Cumberbatch Kirsten Dunst Jesse Plemons
Kodi Smit-McPhee Thomasin McKenzie Keith Carradine
This well-conceived and crafted film is so evocative, you are likely to be talking about it and figuring it out with others after you see it. That means, it’s necessary to watch and listen closely—even at the very beginning when there is a monolog spoken by Peter (Smit-McPhee).
The setting is a cattle ranch in 1925, but this won’t be like a typical American western. The ranch is owned by two brothers who couldn’t be more different from one another. Phil the older (in a stunning performance by Cumberbatch) is macho, glib, and sarcastic, lording over everyone—even to the point that in the local saloon when he thinks the party at the next table is too loud, he shuts them and the piano player up. Everyone seems to kowtow to him. His brother George (Plemons also at his personal finest) is his opposite—diffident, unexpressive, and self-effacing. He clearly feels antagonistic and disapproving of his brother, but quakes in his boots when he feels forced to confront him.
But George is man enough (and this film is clearly about manhood and how it’s achieved. George manages to woo childhood friend Rose (Dunst) who is a widow now with a son, Peter, and marry her on the sly outside of Phil’s presence and control. Of course, this does not sit well with Phil, and he disparages her and her son loudly and clearly.
He is especially dismissive of Peter, who is artistic and studying to be a doctor like his deceased father. Modeling themselves after Phil, the ranch hands yell out “faggot!” when Peter walks by, and when Phil takes it upon himself to teach Peter manly things like riding a horse, everyone is surprised. Not Rose—she is horrified. The antagonism between her and Phil is palpable.
The film is expert in bringing the viewer along with little puzzles to think and hypothesize about along the way. It’s a study in personality types and how they might function within a family. It’s an incredibly thoughtful movie with subtle references and signs. Writer-director Jane Campion based it on Thomas Savage’s novel of the same title, The Power of the Dog, a biblical reference to Psalms 22:20, “But be not thou far from me, O LORD…haste thee to help me. Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog…” [power of the dog as a symbol of gluttony, a scavenger, something evil].
The actors are so well cast, and Cumberbatch put himself through all kinds of training exercises to learn ranching, an American western accent, and so on. I would think he is at the top of award lists for best actor, even though he is a bit of a villain. Plemons is in more and more films these days, and in the past seemed rather unremarkable; but in this film, he pulls off being a sympathetic character with authenticity. Dunst herself disappears into a complex, troubled—yet vengeful—woman who lacks self-confidence except in the case of her son, whom she will defend to the end.
As in her previous major work, The Piano, Jane Campion brings to life real people and real struggles to create a psychological drama in which the ending remains ambiguous, at least as far as the main characters are concerned. We get attached to Peter, Rose, George and others, wondering what happened to them.
A psychological study of personality types and how they might function in a family.
Grade: A By Donna R. Copeland