Film name: The Power of the Dog
Release date: 2021
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst
Director: Jane Campion
Script: Jane Campion
Length: 126 minutes
I love Jane Campion’s work and I’m a big fan of Benedict Cumberbatch, so this film had me rubbing my hands when I first saw the preview.
Campion adapted a 1967 novel of the same name by Thomas Savage. The title is in fact a Biblical reference: Deliver my soul from the sword, my darling from the power of the dog.
The Power of the Dog is a western, but the focus is more on character and psychology than on action. There is a brooding, troubling feel to most of the screen time, so the final outcome (while a plot twist I admired unreservedly) is entirely plausible.
The Power of the Dog is set in 1925 in Montana but was actually filmed in New Zealand. The cinematography is simply stunning and the sets, while limited and simple bar the main house, were very effective.
I didn’t discover where it was filmed until after Jim and I had finished watching it. New Zealand was a perfectly credible onscreen Montana, at least to my untrained eye. Jim didn’t notice either and he’s from Texas.
Two brothers, Phil and George Burbank, are cattle ranchers. Following a cattle drive into town (no small distance) they stop overnight. George takes a shine to the widow, Rose, running the restaurant where they eat and who owns the attached boarding house (Kirsten Dunst).
He marries her after a short courtship. He is the brains of the operation in some sense, given that he is always dressed in a suit, drives a car and is not seen doing any herding personally.
Phil (Cumberbatch) is the tougher brother who handles the ranching and ranch hands. He harbours a secret that can only have been a terrible burden in rural America at the time: he is gay.
Rose’s teenage son Peter is sensitive and fey (Kodi Smit-McPhee). He is packed off to college to learn to be a doctor like his father, and shows every sign of being potentially very good at it.
Most of the hope from the narrative comes via Peter. He is kind but tough, too, kindly dispatching a rabbit which Phil has casually injured and slaughtering a different rabbit for the purposes of dissection.
Phil initially bullies Peter, but later there are hints that Phil is attracted to the young man. Most of Phil’s same-sex feelings are displayed for the viewer via references to a friend, Broncho Henry, who has died. Jim’s chuckled ‘I think they’re about to go all Brokeback Mountain on each other’ never came to pass.
Marriage to George, a decent man with a steady income, turns Rose into an alcoholic. She was undeniably vulnerable when supporting herself as a widow, and the move to an isolated ranch where her new brother-in-law loiters in a threatening way tips her over the edge.
This was a very effective supporting performance from Dunst.
The whole film was superb, and I enjoyed every moment. Its subtlety in portraying Phil’s sexuality and Peter’s response to it was perhaps The Power of the Dog’s greatest strength.
We never see Broncho Henry, and the nature of his relationship with Phil is merely hinted at. But the hints are effectively delivered during the course of what is quite a long film. We are in no doubt about Phil’s orientation by the time he begins to befriend Peter.
The outcome is both entirely credible and quite surprising. That’s a good sign in any plot twist.
The ending was satisfying, and I admired the way that narrative was brought to a conclusion every bit as much as the scenery, the characterisation and the acting.
I can’t recommend The Power of the Dog highly enough. Westerns are developing in all manner of exciting directions, showing that this much-loved genre still has so much more to give.
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