A competent but cruel ranch owner terrorizes his brother's new family.
Directed by Jane Campion
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Kodi Smit-McPhee, and Kirsten Dunst
Review by Jon Kissel
Based on screentime, The Power of the Dog is most interested in Phil, and he’s a figure worthy of introspection. Stripped of his anti-social behavior, he’s an admirable figure. Despite coming from wealth and in possession of a classical education from Yale, he’s shunned his class status and works shoulder to shoulder with his employees in the dirt of the Montana wilderness. He knows the trade as good as any roughneck cowboy, able to braid a rope or castrate a bull. He’s also a gay man in a dangerous time, and though it’s uncertain that he and Bronco Henry had a relationship when the latter was still alive, it’s certain that Phil is physically yoked to that formative relationship, keeping a secret cove that doubles as a masturbatory shrine to his dead mentor. It’s easy to imagine this story, adapted from a Thomas Savage novel, making Phil into an anti-hero instead of an antagonist, especially since he has so many hallmarks of anti-heroism in a post-Brokeback Mountain landscape. In fact, a 2017 modern day film called God’s Own Country was about an anti-social Scottish shepherd whose homosexuality produces no small amount of self-loathing, at least until he strikes up a relationship with a farmhand, was one of the best of that year.
Campion going that route is easy to imagine, especially once Phil and Peter start spending more time together. However, the grim spectacle of his relentless psychological attacks on Rose are too much for the film to overlook. Dunst was diagnosed with depression in the late 2000’s, and this is at least her third performance in the years since, after Melancholia and The Beguiled, where she’s accessing a painful and visceral part of herself. Her life with Peter at this settlement hotel/restaurant is imaginable before the events of the film as one of contentment, if not comfort. Most patrons probably liked Peter’s paper flowers, or at least found them inoffensive. Phil lights them on fire. After Rose marries George, the satisfaction Rose gets from work is taken away by the Burbank family staff (including, in a very small role, rising star Thomasin McKenzie for some reason), and Phil takes the rest of her sanity. I don’t love the ominous grabbing for alcohol in any movie, including this one, but her final surrender to a drink is about as earned as it could possibly be. Rose and especially George drop out of the film as Peter takes a larger role in the final act, but as Peter works to soften Phil, the specter of Rose’s deterioration is not easily forgotten by the viewer or by Peter.
The Power of the Dog’s grand trick is to make a film about Peter that belongs to Phil until he’s suddenly being nailed into a coffin. It’s an inventive switcheroo, but it’s a choice that steals any deeper meaning from the film. From the moment Peter sees the dog shadow in the mountains, something Phil thought only Bronco Henry could see without being prompted, the likeliest outcome of the film becomes Phil finding redemption through Peter, whether it’s through a mentor-mentee relationship or a romantic one. That’s a film that makes sense, so much so that it’s been done plenty of times. Instead, Peter, despite his ethereal presence as a 100-pound string bean who would prefer to stay in his room dissecting rabbits, is an active participant in his own story and not a complement to someone else’s, and he contrives a cruel and wildly successful revenge plot against Phil in retaliation for his cruelty towards Rose. Phil couldn’t imagine more in Peter than the lisp and a penchant for arts and crafts, and tried to make Peter in Phil’s own image when what was in front of him was a fully-formed calculating and meticulous mind. Phil’s oversight leads to him ending the film in the ground, oblivious to how he got there.
That this is revealed in the final scenes makes Power of the Dog into something out of Usual Suspects, but films with major twists often struggle to be more than the twists themselves. That kind of gotcha plotting invites questions, and the film doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. George, a key player otherwise, has absolutely no role to play in bringing Phil to heel or in the dissolution of his wife. He’s a completely passive presence, even when he has something more to defend than his own dignity. His significant absence feels like an oversight instead of a calculated move. Peter isn’t so much a planner as he is an opportunist who strikes at the right time, though the way the ending drops, that also doesn’t seem to be the takeaway Campion is aiming for. Peter’s master plan revolves around the coincidence of Rose impulsively giving all Phil’s cow hides away to passing Indians (one played by a lineless and likely frustrated Adam Beach), depriving Phil of the material needed to finish Peter’s rope and allowing Peter to give Phil a hide infected with anthrax. What if Rose never gave away the hides, or Phil, enamored with this new project, worked all night on his rope and finished it early? Smit-McPhee, who has a lifetime pass based on his debut performance as the lead kid in The Road, is made to look like a mastermind who smirks over his mother’s instant sobriety up after Phil dies. The film hasn’t done thorough enough work to warrant that kind of title.
It’s not The Power of the Dog’s fault that Westerns take on a mythic quality, especially when made by acclaimed directors. The setting and the tradition implies that they’re going to have this epic sweep, all while getting to some truth about the American character. I admittedly carried that expectation into Campion’s film, and am still surprised that the result is little more than a bullied kid taking revenge on a bully who was about to change his ways. There’s just very little to take away from that kind of story. A jerk was murdered, and everyone lived happily ever after. Peter became a successful surgeon, maybe George finds the strength to manage the ranch in Phil’s absence, he and Rose have a baby they can pass it all on to, Phil’s grave gets overgrow with weeds. Is that it? Campion is likely to steer her cast to the Oscars, and maybe some wins for them and maybe for herself. They wouldn’t be undeserved, as this is a film that reeks of exactitude and quality. That smell, unlike Phil, dissipates way too soon. B