Synopsis: Cattle rancher in 1920’s American West makes everyone’s life miserable. (Streaming on Netflix)
I was prepared for the importance of The Power of the Dog. For one thing, it’s critical darling director Jane Campion’s first feature film since 2009’s Bright Star. Eyes have been on the Kiwi filmmaker since she was awarded the Canne Film Festival’s Palme d’Or for The Piano (1993).
For another thing, the movie’s title is ripe with portent. We know that it’s not going to be literally about a dog who is strong, like You should see how Taylor’s dog drags him down the street whenever he sees a squirrel run by or When my dog looks at me with those pleading eyes, I am powerless to resist sharing my biscotti.
The movie begins on a rural landscape with the title card: Montana, 1925. Lie! it is in actuality the 2020 plague times and this is Ms. Campion’s native New Zealand. I am a reasonable person, so I will forgive the cast & crew for not employing time travel since it doesn’t exist, but verisimilitude in location is one of my bête noires: this is cinema, not theater, people. Luckily for the filmmakers there is a rough match between central Montana and Otago, located on New Zealands’ South Island/ Te Waipounamu. In an interesting flip, while Montana is roughly 45 degrees north of the equator, the inland Otago Province region is approximately 43 degrees south of the equator. Not to be too much of a geography geek, but this gives the two areas a similar climate. Both areas are also dry and semi-mountainous. But, wow, are their fauna different–putting on my zoology nerd glasses now for a quick two paragraph elucidation…
Bats and coastal sea mammals are the only indigenous mammals in New Zealand. The north and south islands are rich with birdlife; including lots of adorable flightless birds like kakapos (owl parrots) and kiwis. Unfortunately, humans arrived about seven hundred years ago and killed off a number of species including the moas (very large flightless birds). And rats hitched a ride too, along with non-stowaways like weasels, deer and cats. Fortunately, deer do not eat birds. However, cats do and some conservationists have called for all cats in New Zealand to be put down. They maintain that even housebound kitties and their guardians are too naughty to be trusted to keep doors to the outdoors closed. As far as I know, the people wouldn’t be punished with euthanasia, just the wannabe wanderlusting felines.
Montana, in the western United States, is full of mammals, including pronghorn antelope (who evolved to be superfast to escape prehistoric North American cheetahs), mule deer, bison and predators like grizzly bears, mountain lions and wolves. Fortunately, no mere rat could threaten these big mammals. On the downside, humans with rifles do blast away at the state’s fauna with zeal.
Back to The Power of the Dog… so, although the movie unfolds like a Western Gothic, it was filmed in the southern hemisphere, within spitting distance of the Pacific. I couldn’t stay vexxed though, because the film’s landscape looks beautiful.
Our 1920’s cowboys are two brothers who own a profitable ranch. When they are not driving cattle, they reside in a commodious house, filled with stuffy furnishings and miles of polished wood. And animal heads on the walls. I wonder if this is similar to singer Kelly Clarkson’s Montana ranch house.
We see the Burbank Bros. riding herd with George (Jesse Plemons) looking resigned and Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) looking like he’s itching for a fight. He is very rude, addressing his brother (who sports a little paunch) as Fatso. He accuses ‘Fatso’ of being too dumb to finish college and in the same breath says they should go camping together. George keeps his calm and dignity through it all. You might think that Phil is just having a bad day. You’d be wrong.
The Power of the Dog‘s screenplay is based on the 1967 book by Thomas Savage. Writer Annie Proulx (The Shipping News and “Brokeback Mountain”) calls Phil one of the most vicious characters in American Literature. Yes. Besides all of the fat shaming he does to his brother, Phil hates everyone, appears to enjoy castrating cattle and punches a horse. Thankfully, he does not have a wife or children to beat.
Phil does have the ability to be charming and hold sway, like tyrants such as President Snow in The Hunger Games or Ellen DeGeneres. All of the cowboys respect Phil and laugh appreciatively at his mean-spirited jokes. When he has them all together, he regales them with boring stories of the perfect cowboy, Bronco Henry, who “practically raised” him and George. Besides teaching them cowboying ways, he also taught them about women. Phil asks George if he remembers the whores that Bronco Henry sent to them in early adolescence. You can almost feel George sighing, There must be more than this. There is…
While the brothers and their cowboy employees are driving cattle, they need to overnight in an outpost along the way. They stay at an inn run by a comely widow, Rose (Kirsten Dunst). She races around the kitchen preparing meals for the men who sit waiting at a long table. You can tell that their rowdiness and drinking have her frazzled. Thankfully, her adored teen son, Peter (Kodi Smit McPhee) is there to waiter and bus tables. He has a meek way about him. When Phil learns that the young man crafted the paper flowers in the modest eating area, he looks the poor kid right in the eye and sets a flower alight. It comes as no surprise that Phil does not abide those who do not conform to gender norms.
Phil’s nastiness comes back to bite him in the butt. After dinner, George apologizes to Rose and stays up late to talk with her. When he next sees Phil, he gently chastises him for making Rose cry because of his cruelty to her son. Phil can’t believe it. This is the thanks he gets for paying the lady the favor of informing her that her son is “half-cooked.” When the cattle drive is over and they are back at the ranch, George motors off on a regular basis to see Rose; clearly courting her as Phil fears. George should be staying put so that he, hateful Phil, can bully him.
Much to Phil’s rageful chagrin, George rejects the callous home that Phil has built for him and marries Rose. George and Rose return from a modest honeymoon to the ranch. While George clambers upstairs with her bags, Rose greets her new brother-in-law. Phil interrupts her pleasantries by hollering at her that she is a “cheap schemer.”
Despite Phil’s heavy workload on the ranch, he dedicates himself to making Rose’s life miserable with heaping helpfuls of social cruelty. The poor woman can’t even practice the piano without Phil joining in from upstairs, taunting her with his superior banjo playing. He basically drives her to drinking. Addiction recovery programs probably caution people to not blame others for their overdrinking, but in this case, it truly is Phil’s fault. Geez, just wait til her son, who has been away at school, shows up for the summer.
Phil seems almost pleased when “Miss Nancy,” as Phil calls Peter, arrives at the ranch. When Phil invites Peter to learn about ranching, Rose actually fears for Peter’s life. He’s bookish and mild-mannered, while Phil is mean as a snake. Fortunately, Rose doesn’t have to worry about Phil putting a snake in Peter’s boot because there are no snakes* in New Zealand and Peter doesn’t wear boots. He wears fussy-looking white shoes which he manages to keep spotless.
* Just sea snakes by the shore. But watch out if you are in Montana which has prairie rattlesnakes. Maybe it was a good idea for Campion to not film there.
Sometimes Phil takes a break from his ranching work and self-proscribed plan of tormentation against Rose and her son. He sneaks off to what can best be described as a secret grotto. He hikes away from the cattle and cowboys, and then picks his way through light woods of beech (standing in for Montana’s junipers) —don’t step on any kiwi birds!
Phil reaches his destination: a glorious swimming hole. Time to relax by stripping down and slathering his body with mud. Why he even scrubs his genitals with it –this is some extreme spa-ing! Nothing wrong with a little “me” time. Whilst splishing and splashing in the water, he wears a piece of fabric around his neck, fashioned into a bandanna. After bathing he dries off on the adjoining bank and begins rubbing his man parts with the fabric in a sensual manner. Let’s just say that there was some serious scarf fetishing going on. And he should probably shake some borax onto the fabric before returning to the ranch.
Yes, things get weird in The Power of the Dog and at a certain point, things seem to be headed in a There Will Be Blood direction. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Phil Burbank might be cut from the same cloth as Daniel Day Lewis’ Daniel Plainview. Benny is amazing, and his performance never goes off the rails, but, like Plainview’s character, the farther the movie progresses, the less we can make sense of the character.
The last thirty minutes or so of TPofTD are the most interesting, as otherwise the narrative really drags for most of the movie. Thinking about the movie afterward was more involving than watching the actual movie. I wish that I could give high praise to such a beautifully shot film with excellent performances from Jesse Plemons (Kirsten Dunst’s partner IRL), Kodi Smit- McPhee, Benedict Cumberbatch and, in perhaps a career-best performance, Kirsten Dunst. But the movie just sits there. Unlike Bronco Henry who never stopped bucking horses or setting fence posts. At least according to mean ol’ Phil.
P.S. The movie’s title comes from a Psalm: Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog.”