Jane Campion wrote and directed this film, and it shows. I had ambivalent feelings about her earlier, critically acclaimed The Piano, and I have similar reservations about this latest venture, which has won a swag of awards too numerous to outline here. (See below instead.)
The setting is Montana in the 1920s, the last frontier of the American West. Two cattle-ranching brothers, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons) bring their herd into a town that looks like a set from High Noon. The local hotel is run by widow Rose (Kirsten Dunst) with the help of her effeminate son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and some local yokels.
Phil is a nasty piece of work, a bully who seems to enjoy inflicting emotional pain. When he and his droving crew sit down for a meal in the dining-room, Peter hovers, towel over one arm like a real waiter. Phil mocks him for it, then sets fire to one of the paper flowers Peter has painstakingly made to adorn the tables. The ruffian trailhands cheer him on.
George is a kinder, more sensitive soul. Their relationship is an interesting one. Phil is as rude and boorish to his brother as he is to anyone, but they are close enough to share a bed. Phil addresses his brother as ‘Fatso’, which doesn’t appear to rile George, who instead listens patiently when Phil goes on and on about Bronco Henry, an early manly mentor now deceased, and apparently the only person on earth Phil doesn’t despise.
But George has aspirations to a more genteel life, and defies Phil’s scorn to court and marry Rose in gentlemanly fashion. He brings her and her delicate son back to the old timber mansion bequeathed to the brothers by their elderly parents who now live in the city. George buys Rose a new piano, and plans a dinner party to which he invites his parents and their friends, the state governor and his wife. George is proud of this exalted friendship.
But the presence of Rose and Peter does not improve Phil’s manners. On the contrary it only serves to increase his antagonism towards them. He notices and mocks every bum note Rose plays while practising the piano, and sabotages George’s dinner-party by turning up late, unwashed and still wearing his leather chaps and spurred cowboy boots. He is rude to the distinguished guests, and when Rose reluctantly sits down at the piano at George’s insistence to play for the company, he reduces her to a shivering wreck with his jibes.
George is away a lot on business, leaving Rose and Peter at the mercy of this merciless bastard. Rose, previously a teetotaller, becomes a furtive and shamefaced drinker, handing Phil yet another weapon against her.
All seem powerless in the face of Phil’s relentless emotional cruelty, but is this outward display of uber-butch toxic masculinity a cover for deeper vulnerabilities and demons? You bet your jingling spurs it is. We just know that sooner or later at least one of the worms is going to turn….
Jane Campion is a brilliant filmmaker in many ways. The Power of the Dog has the dazzling originality of scene-setting and attention to characterization and domestic detail that we have come to expect from her, but I couldn’t help feeling It would have worked better had it been shorter and gone a bit downmarket, say into the territory of melodrama. The ending is a satisfying one, but in getting there the plot loses momentum under the weight of all that slow-moving Campionesque arty portentousness. It should have been a bit more High Noon, a bit less arthouse.
The cinematography is wonderful, and the evocation of time and place are flawless, even though it was shot not in Montana but mostly across the rural Otago area of New Zealand.
A dog-loving friend of mine asked anxiously whether any dogs were hurt in the movie. The answer is absolutely not. The rules are so strict about animal welfare in movies these days that they weren’t even allowed to manhandle cattle in any way. The Power of the Dog is based on a 1967 novel of the same name by Thomas Savage. The title refers to a quote from one of the psalms. The story otherwise has nothing to do with dogs.
Here in Australia you can watch it on Netflix.
The Power of the Dog is an international co-production between New Zealand, Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada.
It won the Silver Lion for Best Direction at this year’s Venice film festival and was named one of the best films of 2021 by the National Board of Review and American Film Institute. It tied with Belfast for a leading seven nominations at the 79th Golden Globe Awards, including Best Motion Picture – Drama, and received ten nominations at the 27th Critics’ Choice Awards, including Best Picture.