Updated: May 9
By Marcus Rodriguez , Special to The Star
The period piece and dramatic thriller “The Power of the Dog,” based on the 1967 novel by Thomas Savage, is an unsettling, psychologically piercing and somehow tender examination of the turn-of-the-century American West and the male archetypes which were birthed and venerated during this turbulent and violent time.
And the film, which just nabbed Jane Campion her first win for best director at the 94th Academy Awards, reveals how these archetypes can be used by everyday people as a way to mask their true identity, often to destructive ends. The gloves are off, and this revisionist western is a bruising left hook from the poetic and meditative mind of Campion.
Good films run deep and are far more probing than the politics of their day, and “The Power of the Dog” doesn’t try to intellectually dominate its audience, or dwell in contemporary politics, it simply and patiently reveals one single human tragedy in a sparse and hostile environment. With a narrative that slowly unravels, like snowmelt trickling down from the Montana mountain ranges, yields to gravity’s tug.
In the tradition of cinematic works such as Clint Eastwood’s “The Unforgiven,” Robert Altman’s “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” as well as the novels of Cormack McCarthy, Campion’s new film takes a much more sober and decidedly unromantic look at the American Western.
The film follows the story of two wealthy and successful ranchers in 1925 Montana. Phil Burbank, played by the superb Benedict Cumberbatch exudes a whisper of the “clenched fist” tension reminiscent of Heath Ledger’s Ennis Del Mar in “Brokeback Mountain.” He is a bitter, steel-eyed asshole, who spends his days on the ranch belittling and abusing his slightly dim-witted and diminutive brother and business partner, George Burbank, played with subdued sensitivity by Jesse Plemons. The brothers, who inherited their land from their parents, live a solitude and depressing life, ranging, slaughtering and selling cattle.
Things change when the ranchers take rest in a nearby inn run by a widow, Rose Gordon, played with raw vulnerability by Kirsten Dunst, and her quietly intelligent and effeminate son, Peter, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee. Despite the bitter objections of Phil, George quickly courts and marries Rose and invites her and Peter to pull up stakes and move into the Burbank Ranch. Cumberbatch’s Phil, who seems to be playing another sort of imitation game, is curiously jealous of his brother’s newfound happiness. He has long ago clamped down and destroyed any possibility of sensitivity within himself, and the mere sight of Peter and Rose propels him into sneering and hostile verbal assaults.
Think “Meet the Parents” mixed with “The Proposition” in a Henry James novel and that about approximates Phil’s brand of rustic, turn-of-the-century psychological torment directed towards his new in-laws. Phil belittles Peter in front of everyone at the ranch, with blunt verbal jabs in scene after scene of humiliation and emasculation. He’s far crueler to the lady of the house though. In addition to attacking Rose directly, Cumberbatch’s Phil revels in the shadows, like a bird of prey, as he plucks and claws at Rose’s tenuous nerves, watching the taught line of her sanity fray and tear. Dunst’s Rose, who’s pushed to binge-drinking because of Phil’s onslaught, is a brutally heartbreaking woman undone. The more time passes the harder Ms. Dunst’s performance hits me.
Despite the savagery of how his character is written, viewers may find themselves falling out of belief that Cumberbatch encapsulates this character. Cumberbatch is a brilliant actor, but he has such natural warmth and sensitivity — that even with his virtuosic range and sharp ear for speech — it is hard to believe he was this sadistic rancher, at least not until his character migrates into more of a tragic figure towards the end.
With Peter, although some of his behavior and wardrobe decisions seemed a little anachronistic given the time period, he was brilliantly played by Smit-McPhee. Peter is a truly interesting and fascinating character innovation, as he embodies both the revenge-seeking, anti-hero protagonist of classic westerns, while at the same time giving hints of the femme fatale of Hollywood’s film noir pictures: Peter slowly gains the trust of Cumberbatch’s Phil, disarming his gruff facade and teasing him with hopes of companionship and a whispering glimpse towards a freedom of sexual expression which haunts Phil to his core. Peter rope-a-dopes Phil and brilliantly dissects his pathos with the patient calculation of a grand master chess-player, as he deftly presents a mask of youthful naïveté, all the while carefully and meticulously hiding his true intentions of revenge. Despite his ultimately heroic acts however, Peter bears a cold, distant and mechanical personality that at times makes it difficult to emotionally invest in his struggle. But, as we find out, there’s a reason he’s so shut down and calculating. It is an intelligent, mercurial and scarifying assured performance by 25-year-old Smit-McPhee.
As tensions rise, elevated superbly by the sparse string musical score by Johnny Greenwood, Campion’s film slips forward with quiet precision as the audience are left guessing how any peace will ever be delivered to this seemingly quiet Montana ranch. But, as the masks come off and the archetypes fall away, we are left clutching and fumbling with the tensely-knotted mystery of this haunting, suspenseful neo-western.