‘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.

The Fifth Estate (2013)

First off, Julian Assange had condemned the making of the film. The WikiLeaks founder had written to Benedict Cumberbatch (12 Years a Slave, August: Osage County) to dissuade him from picking up the role as his onscreen persona. The letter was published on his website days prior to the film’s general release in theatres. After seeing the movie, I can understand why.

The Fifth Estate Movie Poster copyCumberbatch has presented to us, kudos to his gripping performance and transformation to the Australian accent, an Assange that is fully committed to his cause of absolute freedom to access of information and safe-guarding of whistleblowers in the world with his online organization WikiLeaks, and yet, viewers also see a man who is egotistic, callous, and even to the point of fanatical.

With the portrayal of the different facets of the man, we are confronted with both sides of the issue of transparency. On the one hand, governments, banks, and institutions are made accountable and corruptions and wrongdoings can be exposed. A consequence could be, as in the leaks of 250,000 US diplomatic cables (Cablegate), the inevitable compromising of privacy and security of individuals, leaving lives at stake, such as informants in dictatorial regimes as their identities are disclosed.

Indeed, we live in a messy, messy world. It would be much easier if things are in black and white, and if events can happen much slower for our grasp. The styling of the film could well have conveyed some of that sentiment. It tells the story of Assange’s founding of WikiLeaks and its cases in slick, flashy and fast paced, montage-like treatment. Certain concepts are rendered in a fanciful, almost cartoonish way. Coming into the theatre without much expectation, I have no qualms with the visual metaphors in depicting cyberspace and the digital hacking workhouse.

Following the cases that flash by may be a bit rash on first viewing, but they are thrilling sequences. From a David and Goliath battle of one man against money laundering in the giant Swiss Julius Baer Bank, to political death squad in Kenya, to the now termed ‘collateral murder’ of Reuter reporters and innocent bystanders by U.S. helicopter pilots in Iraq, to the recent Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning leaks of Afghan and Iraq army logs and 250,000 diplomatic cables, we as viewers may want more in-depth handling. However, as this is not a documentary, director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls, Gods and Monsters) has dealt with the subject relatively well within a two hour period.

The movie is based on two books which Assange had denounced in his letter to Cumberbatch, claiming their malicious intent and the lack of truths. One is Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website by Daniel Domscheit-Berg, an initial follower who soon becomes Assange’s right-hand-man, until the leaks of the diplomatic cables. Domscheit-Berg’s main concern is the lives that would be compromised if the cables are published without redacting and screening, while Assange insists on unedited, all out exposure. For his role as Daniel Domscheit-Berg, Daniel Brühl (Rush) delivers a convincing performance that matches Cumberbatch’s in the film.

Benedict Cumberbatch & Daniel Brühl copy

While the cast includes such fine supporting actors as Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci, David Thewlis, Dan Stevens… it is Cumberbatch and Brühl that carry the whole show, with the two starting off as complementary partners, albeit Assange remains the domineering one, to the disintegration of their relationship. For those who like to compare movies with similar subject matter, this is no Social Network. ‘Socializing’ is too trivial a word here. WikiLeaks involves much more dangerous and deadly issues. If anything, Condon’s is a light approach to presenting the complex and controversial subjects of transparency, privacy, and global security.

After watching the movie, I was surprised to discover the generally low ratings it receives. I admit, one can’t compare it to the intricacy of The Social Network, but it is still an entertaining, visual synopsis of some ongoing news events that deserve our attention. The film is a springboard to some needed thinking and discussions before drawing conclusions for ourselves, as the character Assange urges us to do at the end of the movie. Alas, here’s the rub. In our messy and blurry world of truths and fiction, that just may not be an easy task to do.

~ ~ ~ Ripples