From the very beginning as the opening credits appear, the premise of the story is laid out for the viewers. This is a crucial introduction as it sets the stage for what the story is about, how a son would do all he could to save his mother from suffering. The narrator is Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) via a voiceover:
“When my father passed, I wanted nothing more than my mother’s happiness. For what kind of a man would I be if I did not help my mother? If I did not save her?’
It is Montana in 1925. Peter’s mother Rose (Kirsten Dunst) runs The Red Mill restaurant and lodge in the remote landscape of the wild. One day a group of cowhands driving their cattle passes by. While dining at the restaurant, their leader, rancher Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch), picks on the effeminate Peter as he serves them. Rose is distraught, but the kindness and love of Phil’s brother George (Jesse Plemons) wins her over. Not long after that the two are married. The downside of an otherwise beautiful relationship is having to live under the same roof with Phil in the Burbank family ranch home.
Rose lives in fear of Phil, a bully who can crush her fragile psyche by just whistling. Phil’s masterful banjo playing is a slap in the face and a show of force as Rose struggles to learn to play the piano. George while loving is oblivious or rather subdued by Phil as well. Peter has gone away to study medicine but is back in the summer to be with his mother, observing keenly her deteriorating psychological state and addiction to alcohol for relief. The relevance of the opening lines in the voiceover begins to brew.
New Zealand born director Jane Campion, one of only seven women ever to have been nominated for an Oscar in directing (The Piano, 1993), comes back with an exquisite production shot on location in New Zealand, twelve years after her last feature film. The Power of the Dog is an exemplar of superb cinematic storytelling.
Campion has an exceptional team under her helm. The four main characters are strong talents. Cumberbatch’s nasty streak is conveyed not only by his demeaning words but his posture and the confident way he walks and rides. However, nothing pierces as sharply as his often silent and chilly manner, staring his opponent down with his ominous gaze, a role that’s against type for the British actor who had brought Sherlock to a new generation and had since been nominated for an Oscar playing WWII math genius Alan Turing in The Imitation Game (2014). Cumberbatch’s performance here is in top form, likely getting him another Oscar nomination.
It is Smit-McPhee who steals the scene as the effeminate, slim and pale Peter. Underneath his appearance of weakness is his tenacity and a smart mind, especially when his self-imposed mission is to save his mother. Discovering accidentally Phil’s secret hideout, Peter comes to realize that hidden behind Phil’s macho front is a gay man. Knowing this, he gains Phil’s trust and admiration to turn the tables on him. The whole revealing of the plot flows out seamlessly; no doubt, credits also to the author of the 1967 novel the film is based on, Thomas Savage.
Campion’s storytelling is masterful in that she drops hint after hint as the film moves on, all important cues leading to the ultimate end. Without spilling any spoilers in this review, look out for these scenes: cows dead from anthrax, Peter’s anatomy exercise in his room, his exploring the mountains by himself and skinning the hide of a dead cow he comes across there, his gloved hands.
Cinematographer Ari Wegner frames her shots exquisitely and imbues them with contextual meaning to move the story along. The topography of the New Zealand location in place of Montana’s wild west exudes the beauty of the natural landscape, creating a colour palette of the open range with shades of brown, teal, and dusty rose for Dunst, at times capturing the natural light of the golden hour; Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven comes to mind. From her camera, the interior set design of the ranch home and the barn are framed with superb aesthetics.
The score composed by Jonny Greenwood (Phantom Thread, 2017) augments the suspenseful mood, particularly effective is the dissonance of the strings, revealing the discords among the characters and their internal strife.
A Western only in its setting, with no shootouts but no less intense, characterization astute, conflicts psychological. The finale leaves a slight, nuanced smile on the face of the victor. He can now ride off into the sunset with relief as the Bible verse the title comes from, Ps. 22:20, is fulfilled: ‘deliver me from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dog.’ A new chapter begins for Rose and George as they step back into the ranch home as a free and happy couple.
~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples
The Power of the Dog is now streaming on Netflix.