The Power of the Dog (Review)
"Let's just say... how nice it is not to be alone."
So states George Burbank (Jesse Plemons) just after he marries the widower Rose Gordon (Kristen Dunst). But loneliness doesn't surrender easily. It is a force that moves people in unintended ways and is what hovers throughout Jane Campion's "The Power of the Dog." Ms. Campion's work has always looked at what's underneath the surface of her characters and in bigger terms, humans.
George and his brother Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) run a cattle ranch and the film begins with them running the cattle to the next town for payment. Even amongst the hired hands and sharing a bed together- which must have been a childhood routine no one attempted to break- the loneliness is palpable. George is the quiet one who tends to dress and behave so that a civil society will embrace him. Phil, on the other hand, has embraced what it means to be a man. A man defined by a hardness whose place in the world depends on his ability to hurt and bring down those who would attempt to prove they are tougher than he. George meets Rose when his crew spends the night at her boarding house and proposes not long after. Rose lives with her son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and have a good life running their business. Perhaps its because of loneliness or maybe because being a widow isn't fashionable in Montana society of the 1920's but she gives up her life to be with George.
Rose moving in with the brothers sets the movie in motion. Phil's cankerous disposition erupts when he has to share a house with Rose. He attacks Peter whose feminine disposition is an easy target for Phil and the ranchers. Rose too has to weather her new environment. She was used to running her own business and house but finds she occupies a house with two maids who do the work which leaves her with nothing to do but worry about how her son is being treated and dealing with Phil's eruptions. George's occupation with the cattle leaves her alone and susceptible to drinking which gets out of hand. Loneliness is a heavy presence throughout this film and Ms. Campion displays what it does to people when they're overpowered by it.
Ms. Campion has made an interesting choice in Mr. Cumberbatch playing Phil. Phil comes from a long line of macho men who proclaimed they conquered the West. These characters must be equipped with an intimidating presence and violent disposition to make such accomplishments believable to the audience. Actors such as John Wayne, Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson could enter a scene and a backstory would be unnecessary. You automatically understand the character. Mr. Cumberbatch not so, or at least not before this film was made. He is too complex and there's a hint of an artist within him, which is to say a man who can convey many feelings. The exact opposite of one who scorches the earth to get what he wants. But Ms. Campion has transformed this actor. She put him into the wild to get a feeling of what such men were up against and Mr. Cumberbatch transformed into the character. And the fact that he isn't typecast means he's more realistic and that benefits the story tremendously. Add to that Mr. Cumberbatch's talent and he has developed a complex character that adds several layers to the film.
But the real gem in "The Power of the Dog" is Mr. Smit-McPhee. There are actors and actresses who once in a while are so perfectly cast in a role that the audience doesn't see them working, they just see them being. That's the case with Mr. Smit-McPhee as Rose's son, Peter. A feminine boy he is the target of the ranch hands' verbal abuse and Phil's attention both hostile and curious. The beauty of Mr. Smit-McPhee's performance is that his behavior invites stereotyping and yet his character is drawn throughout the film with subtle hints of who he is that by the end all is a surprise, yet nothing is surprising. It is a cinematic character for the ages.
A major player in this film is the New Zealand landscape which stood in for the Montana backdrop. Gorgeously filmed by Ari Wegner ("True History of the Kelly Gang") the scenery stands majestically surrounding the characters of this story. It's not hard to see how the isolation, even among company, can wrap itself around the spirit of an individual and drive them insane. It is an incredible feat that reminds me of the films of John Ford or spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone. But Ms. Wegner and Ms. Campion have built something different. Instead of a place that's a backdrop for action and violence they have created another character that contributes to the tension with suppressed feelings simmering just underneath the surface. "The Power of the Dog" is best seen in a theater. That's the place one might enjoy its true mastery. But wherever you see it, it shouldn't be missed.