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Five Cent Cine: The Power Of The Dog

“Out where a friend is a friend”

Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) making his paper flowers.

The toxic masculinity of Phil Burbank, the epicenter of Jane Campion’s Western set in the isolated plains and mountains of 1925 Montana, overpowers all relationships, as he torments, in turn, his soft-spoken brother George, George’s timid and fragile new wife, the “suicide widow” Rose, and her effeminate son Peter, who makes paper flowers. Benedict Cumberbatch exudes malevolence as he belittles George (“fatso”), Rose (“you’re a cheating schemer”) and Peter (“Miss Fancy,” “little bitch”). He physically assaults, however, only his horse, calling her “whore” and “fat-faced bitch,” when he takes out his anger on the mare after learning George has married Rose.

Campion is no stranger to tension, as she displayed in her tortured love story, “The Piano” (1993). Here Phil generates an unrelenting tension, while Campion slowly brings to light a portrait of a deeply lonely man, sexually attracted to other men. Phil continuously mocks him, but it’s only George (Jesse Plemons) with whom Phil sees himself as a whole person; Phil wants George to participate in, and witness, his life. He longs for George’s presence, is frustrated by George’s silence (one of the younger brother’s modes of adapting to Phil’s provocations), and he is devastated when George marries. George, too, has been living a life of loneliness, even while sharing the trail—the brothers are successful ranchers—and bedrooms, with his brother. George tears up as he tells Rose (Kirsten Dunst, Plemons’s real-life wife), “you don’t know how nice it is not to be alone.”

When a rabbit is not just a bunny. Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee)

Based on the eponymous 1968 book by Thomas Savage, “The Power of the Dog” is both obvious and subtle. The subtlety derives from the crafty way Campion withholds Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) from the script. He’s an object of Phil’s derision early on and then, a minor character, he disappears. When he reappears, Peter again seems to be merely a target of Phil’s barbs. A quick flash—a medical school student, he is caught dissecting a rabbit he’s trapped and killed—reveals Peter has capabilities not yet displayed.

The four main characters, all performances worthy of award nominations, alone create the drama. Except for the mythic Bronco Henry, who haunts Phil from the grave, the others are background, whether the cowboy “Greek chorus” or the distant parents and other “luminaries.” Of the principals, the one that stealthily enters our consciousness is Peter. His transformation from badgered homosexual teen to confident, power-wielding adult is astonishing and frightening. Even Phil, or maybe especially Phil, doesn’t see it coming.

Against these plains and mountains, including one with the metaphoric shape of a dog, the anguish of these people is exposed as they search for a way out of solitude, out of their desperate and small lives.

Breathtaking cinematography—New Zealand stands in for Montana—by Ari Wegner (she also shot the very different “Zola”) contrasts the majesty of nature to the degraded lives of humans who live in its midst. Against these plains and mountains, including one with the metaphoric shape of a dog, the anguish of these people is exposed as they search for a way out of solitude, out of their desperate and small lives.

Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch), left, and Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) ​​

“The Power of the Dog” is in the tradition of “Brokeback Mountain” and “Call Me by Your Name”. Yet it’s less about repressed sexuality and love than it is about locating the self in the midst of doubt and insecurity, of searching for another person with whom to make meaning out of life, and ultimately of the power of one person over another. It begins with Phil’s power, and it ends with what some will feel as a surprising discomfort over what has taken place. Campion has tricks up her sleeve, exploiting our expectations to shift our emotions from the tension produced by a malevolent presence to a profound sadness about a life lived badly.

Date: 2021

Stars: 3.5 (out of 4)

Director: Jane Campion

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons, Kirsten Dunst, Kodi Smit-McPhee

Countries: United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, United States

Runtime: 126 minutes

Other Awards: 17 wins and 40 nominations to date

Availability: In some theaters still; streaming on Netflix only; for future availability, see JustWatch here.

Lead image: Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Burbank (Jesse Plemons) are successful Montana ranchers, seemingly bound to each other.

See all Five Cent Cine reviews by 2 Film Critics

Written by 2 Film Critics

2 Film Critics

William Graebner is Emeritus Professor of History, State University of New York, Fredonia, where he taught courses on film and American culture. He is the author or co-author of 11 books and more than 50 scholarly articles, including essays on “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” “The Poseidon Adventure,” and zombie films as they relate to the Holocaust. Dianne Bennett, the first woman to head a large U.S. law firm, is a retired U.S. tax lawyer.

Dianne and Bill were early and passionate attendees at the Toronto Film Festival, and today enjoy the film scenes of Los Angeles, Rome, London, and Buffalo, New York. They began reviewing films for the Rome-based website “TheAmerican/inItalia” in 2016, have maintained a blog on Rome for a decade, and published two alternative guidebooks to the Eternal City. They still can’t resist going to the movies, not to mention the ensuing discussions, sometimes heated, over a bottle of Arneis at the nearest wine bar.

​And that's just the beginning of our reviewing process. For one or two hours we discuss the film, as one of us takes notes. The notetaker transcribes the notes and prints two copies. Dianne or Bill (usually depending on who had the most compelling understanding of the film, or who was most taken with it) writes the first draft of the review--supposedly taking into account the views of the other--which is followed by 3, 4, or even 7 more drafts. At some point, sometimes days later, when we're both comfortable with the result (or accepting of it, anyway), it's done.

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