November 20, 2021 – The Power of the Dog, Jane Campion's (“The Piano”) latest movie, is the current darling of the awards circuit, which is predictable, given the praise heaped on her earlier films. I was not a fan of “The Piano” (1993) which is tedious to watch, so I wasn't looking forward to this, but I was pleasantly surprised.
Like “The Piano,” a sense of malaise, mixed with foreboding, hangs like a choking fog over “The Power of the Dog.” The threat of immanent violence emanates from the character of Montana rancher Phil Burbank (played by Benedict Cumberbatch of “The Courier”). Phil is an angry, bitter man with real darkness in him. The source of this darkness is hinted at later in the film.
Phil seems to be jealous of his easy going brother, George (Jesse Pleamons of “Judas and the Black Messiah”). Phil calls George “fatso” and makes fun of his lack of intelligence. Phil was much more accomplished as an Ivy League college student than was George. Phil seems to resent his own life as well as George's and that of his own parents. Phil is one of the boys, and he commands the respect of his fellow cowboys, while they virtually ignore George.
When George takes a wife, the widowed Rose Gordon (Kirstin Dunst of “Hidden Figures”) Phil immediately sets out to attack her, seemingly convinced she is only interested in George's money. Phil also goes after her “half-cooked” young son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee of “Slow West”) who is very quiet, very awkward, very tall and very thin. Phil sizes Peter up very quickly and decides he is a sissy because that is exactly what he looks like.
Later, in a change of heart, Phil teaches Peter to ride a horse and befriends him, for reasons of his own. When Peter tells Phil that Peter's late father (who hung himself) said that Peter was “too strong,” Phil laughs at the notion that Peter is a strong person. Meanwhile Phil's constant emotionally abusive attacks against Rose cause her to drink to excess and she is falling apart.
Phil seems to have the upper hand in the conflict he wages against his brother and Rose, but the tables are turning. Phil has fairly well pegged his brother and Rose, even though he has underestimated their love for each other. But he is completely wrong about Peter, who is not at all who he seems to be.
The psychological warfare going on at the ranch seems to be pretty straightforward, but there is a lot more going on than meets the eye. Phil thinks he knows the rules of engagement for the battle he is waging against the happiness of others at the ranch, but he is wrong.
In the end, the awful foreboding, the sense of immanent violence finally does manifest itself in action, but not in the expected form, or from the expected source. At the end, this film had me questioning a lot of things about my own tendency to judge people by appearances. That is the original sin in this movie, and it leads to tragic consequences. The story also caused me to reevaluate the narrative about Rose and Peter's past. Maybe the short version told in the movie is not the real story, either.
Filmed in Campion's home country, New Zealand, it does have the approximate appearance of the Rocky Mountain West. Lensed by Ari Wegner (“Lady Macbeth”) this movie captures the dry prairies and stark mountains typical of this part of the country. The wet areas shown in the movie don't look right at all, however. There is a scene where Peter just happens to find the private hideout of Phil in one of those wet areas, and that just doesn't ring true at all in “Big Sky Country” where ranches run into hundreds of square miles and you can see anybody coming miles away.
The title of the film comes from the Bible, Psalm 22:20, which reads, (in the Old King James version) Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog. If you see this movie, you can decide for yourself who is the dog and who is the deliverer.
This is a slow-moving movie, and I kept checking to see how much time was left to go (it runs a bit over two hours). The sense of foreboding is very strong in the early parts of the film, but it finally became less a thing to dread, and more a subject of fascination near the end. That is when I realized it was headed in a different direction than I had expected it to go. As a story, it is a lot less boring than “The Piano,” or many other art films of that ilk. It is not super engaging, but it did hold my attention, and the casting and performances are spot on. This film rates a B.
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