One viewing of The Power of the Dog and you’ll know you have to see it a second time to catch everything—if you can stomach it.
Rose (Kirsten Dunst) is a struggling widow living in rural Montana’s isolation with her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). He isn’t like the other boys, though, and often faces mockery for his more feminine characteristics. When Rose suddenly elopes with George (played by Dunst’s real-life beau Jesse Plemons of Breaking Bad), she and Peter move onto her new husband’s ranch, where they soon find themselves tormented by George’s stone-hearted brother Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch). Phil, it turns out, has plenty of his own secrets to hide, but still—he takes Peter under his wing for grooming.
Director Jane Campion’s newest is all about sexual repression, and it is not subtle in that regard, nor is it trying to be. The number of phallic symbols alone are enough to make the ancient Greeks blush, and everything from fence posts to saddles to blades of grass let you know what’s happening in Phil’s head. Campion’s first film in 12 years is a slow burn, too, and it expertly stokes the embers of tension. As such, it’s a hard film to watch for the character humiliations alone, let alone for the psychotic messes Cumberbatch’s Phil continually unleashes on Peter and the others. Campion is a master director and knows exactly what she wants and how to get it (check out her 1993 knockout The Piano as another example) while making every frame useful to character psychology and development.
When stacked against the modern Western of the last few decades, wherein grittiness seems to have become the de facto stand-in for old Ford romanticism and wherein violence for its own sake is meant to be enough, Campion doesn’t shy from the realities of rural life. Instead, Power of the Dog harkens back to a cornerstone of Western film theory: How does isolation affect the soul? Mix in pent-up desire and questions of masculinity and you’ve got a classic cinematic formula, only this is a little more gay. It doesn’t sparkle with energy, but why should it? This is Montana, by God.
+ So dang good; memorable performances and imagery
- Its payoffs may be unsatisfactory for some
The Power of the Dog
Directed by Campion
With Cumberbatch, Dunst, Smit-McPhee and Plemons
CCA, Violet Crown, Netflix. R, 126 min