‘The Power of the Dog’: Exquisite Cinematic Storytelling

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. 

The Burbank family ranch in The Power of the Dog. Photo: Kirsty Griffin/Netflix

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.

Published by

Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

14 thoughts on “‘The Power of the Dog’: Exquisite Cinematic Storytelling”

  1. I did like the way the film brought out nuances of character–I thought that Rose, for instance, knew how to play the piano pretty well because she played at the cinema, which might have been mostly improvisation or at least self-taught, so what she was nervous about was learning to play classical music the “right” way.
    I didn’t like the film, though. It seemed heavy-handed to me, and everything was so drawn out in terms of time–it would have been a better film if it was half as long.

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  2. It was an amazing and powerful story and kept me guessing and worrying —about who might be the survivor in this family drama. A dark and brilliantly told tale. I personally liked the slowness and how the hidden psychology of the characters unfolded.
    (And I never saw the finale coming.)
    Jane Campion can do darkness quite differently than anyone else.
    All the Actors were amazing and knocked me off my feet — leaving me sitting into the dust to ponder.

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    1. While not giving out spoilers explicitly, I’ve presented my view as to the story and its ending, and noting what the important clues are. Hopefully that will enhance the appreciation of the film for some viewers who might have questions as to its ending. Yes, this could be Jane Campion’s second nom as director, but I sure hope she will go further and win it… to mark it in history as the third woman to win a directing Oscar in its 94-year history. Using Stefanie’s word in her comment, yes, ‘pretty egregious.’ 🙂

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  3. Nothing about this appeals to me. I might watch it if it wins or if Cumberbatch does . But I’m not big on dark films these days or any kind of meanness. It’s bad for my own psychic and spiritual energy — even if the end is redeeming.

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  4. I agree with you, it’s an excellent film and the landscapes are gorgeous. It’s a pity we can’t see it on big screen in a movie theater.

    “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.” She does but it’s not really her storytelling ad it’s all in the book. So, congrats to Thomas Savage.

    This is one of the rare occasions where the film is as good as the book.

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    1. Emma,

      While I haven’t read the book, I know what an exceptional literary work it must be by watching the movie, thus giving credits to Thomas Savage in my post as well (Paragraph 6). You see, as director and screenwriter, Jane Campion has the difficult task of extracting the crucial content from the book, then transposing the literary to the visual within a 2 hr. duration. The Power of the Dog movie adaptation is superb in its cinematic storytelling. Campion is masterful in dropping the hints visually and leading the whole story to unfold via a different medium from the literary. The actors, under her directing, interpret and portray their character astutely. For this cinematic storytelling, Campion has done a brilliant job. And it is my wish that she will be recognized for her work come Oscar time.

      Yes, as per your comment, I’ll add this book-to-film title to my list of movies worthy of their source material in my post: Can a Movie Adaptation Ever be as Good as the Book? Thank you for your comment.

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    2. Just announced: The Power of the Dog gets 12 Oscar noms. including Best Picture. High hope for Jane Campion being the the third woman to win an Oscar in directing, which she so deserves. All four main characters get acting noms. Other categories are Best Adapted Screenplay, Film Editing, Cinematography, Score, Production Design, and Sound.

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  5. Oh thanks for letting me know about this movie! Also, I was startled and sad to read that only 7 women have been nominated for a directing Oscar. That is pretty egregious.

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    1. Yes, of the 7 nominated, only 2 had won in 93 years of Oscar history. They are Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker (2008) and Chloe Zhao for Nomadland (2021). But there are many women directors out there, just not able to break through the ‘celluloid ceiling’.

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      1. I watched this twice, and I needed the other person there second time round to explain what had happened! So that was a luxury, otherwise I would have just taken away the impressive atmosphere, but now I appreciate the plot too, it has become very memorable for me. The only thing I don’t understand is the piano playing. The week after I saw this, I saw The General with a proper piano player and you have to be pretty good to play along to a film. It would have been good to understand better how she was so different in the two contexts.

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        1. Need some research to see how they played with a film back then … I have the inkling that it’s more a ‘play-by-ear’ kind of skill in contrast to the ‘play-by-the-book’ music reading skill Rose is struggling with. Reading the Thomas Savage novel would definitely shed more light. I have it on hold at my local library. Anyway, even without reading it, I find Jane Campion an excellent visual storyteller and a good director in helming this production.

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      2. It is interesting to observe and speculate on what the Oscar boards deem “acceptable nominees/winners” from female directed films, but it seems hard for women even to be able to get to direct too.

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        1. The Oscars are nominated and voted by the members of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, numbering well over 9,000 all over the world. So, it’s a peer endorsing kind of system. Nominations are chosen from among the specific branch, e.g. Directors nominated from within the directors branch, actors from acting branch etc. Best Picture can be voted by all. In other words, how the membership is made up for each branch has a lot of influence on who the winners will be. That’s why in recent years The Academy is pressured to diversify its membership, more inclusive in terms of race and gender and more international in scope. e.g. The Korean director and cast of the Oscar winning ‘Parasite’ as well as the Chinese American talents in ‘The Farewell’ were invited to become members of the Academy. And last year, ‘Minari’ director and actor also included. Here’s a list of new invitees in 2020 and 2021.

          As for women directors, actually there are many, just not as visible as male ones and as you said, not as easily being hired. If you’re interested, I’ve written a post on women directors March 8 of 2021. I need to update it soon.

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