Released 2021. Director: Jane Campion
THE FIRST VOICE WE HEAR AT THE START OF The Power of the Dog belongs to Peter, who tells us “When my father passed, I wanted nothing more than my mother’s happiness. For what kind of man would I be if I did not help my mother? If I did not save her?”
A few minutes pass before we see Peter, carefully cutting up pieces of paper to make flowers he displays in vases. The mild-mannered, pale and skinny teenaged boy is an easy target for mocking when ranch owner Phil and his men come round for dinner at the inn run by Peter’s mother Rose.
Set in Montana in 1925, The Power of the Dog is based on a novel by Thomas Savage. Under Jane Campion’s direction, it’s a handsomely mounted western drama swathed in a dirt-brown landscape of cattle ranching, a rugged environment where masculinity is tested and dissected.
Phil is an authoritarian figure, severe and uncompromising. His brother George is the opposite, a considerate and soft-spoken businessman who sympathises with Rose and returns to marry her, much to the disdain of Phil, who labels his new sister-in-law a “cheap schemer”.
The taunting starts from the first day Rose moves in to the big house on the ranch. Phil, who commands respect among his ranch hands and inspires apprehension in Rose, is aggressive and menacing. His psychological abuse has an intimidating creepiness to the way he shadows Rose, whistling a disquieting tune just out of her sight. Over time, Phil’s unsettling hostility and bullying eventually pushes Rose back to the bottle and a mounting sense of unhappiness in her new life.
Phil’s mocking of Peter is particularly cruel. He delights in belittling the lanky and delicate young man in front of his band of rough-hewn macho cowboys. In his eyes, Rose and Peter are intruders on the stability and rituals he cherishes.
Whether he knows it or not, Phil is a man hanging on to the past so the present doesn’t change and he commands such authority that no one stands up for anyone else. Not George for his wife. Not Rose for her son. The only person Phil holds with any regard is his late mentor Bronco Henry, who taught him his skills and once saved his life, as he tells Peter.
If you’re into psychotherapy you’d find much to analyse and talk about in this character study about repression and control. What makes them behave the way they do, what shaped them in their past and what drives them in the present. Campion, who also adapted the screenplay, gives just enough details to suggest and much is implied.
The tension between Phil and Peter stretches into a nervous truce in the last third. After Peter points out the shape of a dog in the shadows on the distant mountains, something that only Phil and Bronco Henry have been able to see, Phil seems to be kinder to Peter and tones down his abrasive attitude. He offers to teach Peter how to ride a horse and plait a lasso. You wonder if his extension of goodwill is genuine.
Benedict Cumberbatch is angry and chilly because Phil is hot in his head and cold in his heart. He makes the character repulsive but manages to hint he’s not a complete monster. To dismiss Phil offhand as a villain is to gloss over this complex character who hides his insecurity behind his rage and swagger. His momentary vulnerability is what the perceptive Peter discovers and exploits, his knowledge in medicine and surgery coming in handy and there we go, suddenly looking at an ending nobody saw coming. To say more would be a spoiler, except to repeat what Peter says at the beginning about protecting his mother.
The Power of the Dog is a long rope pulled tight at both ends. Tension, even dread, surfaces whenever Phil is in view, more so with Rose or Peter in his sight. Campion’s direction never loses sight of the brewing antagonism. The edits are sharp, the scenes hardly linger, the harshness discourages any romanticising of the wild west landscape. The sense of trepidation is amplified by Jonny Greenwood’s score, making a cello sound like a banjo, sometimes nerve-jangling and frantically discordant.
Campion has crafted a delicate and sinister portrait of resentment and denial. Strained relationships in a slow-burn drama may not be a mainstream audience’s cup of tea but the solid craftsmanship and performances almost guarantee a happy ending of award recognition to come.
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