The Power of the Dog (2021)


Writing in The Hollywood Reporter, film critic David Rooney says of The Power of the Dog, a much praised movie in this impoverished movie year and based on the 1967 novel of the same name by Thomas Savage and nominated for several Oscars and receiving one, Best Director, for Jane Campion: “This is an exquisitely crafted film, its unhurried rhythms continually shifting as plangent notes of melancholy, solitude, torment, jealously and resentment surface.” We’re told elsewhere that the movie takes on themes of love, hate, sexuality, trust and, well, lots of other “aspects.”

Beware of such lists posing as “critiques.” The few reviews of The Power of the Dog I’ve come across seem content to itemize characteristics of the story actors and not show how the drama may or may not produce them. Most basically, stories have people in them, and the best stories usually turn on, and focus intently on, drama which in turn is a matter of conflict among the characters, and, as well, sometimes with Nature, all of which reveals each major character’s make-up.

The Power of the Dog, a Western, is set in Montana in the first decade of the twentieth century on a remote and large cattle ranch owned and run by two brothers who clash as very different personalities. So far, so good. Benedict Cumberbatch is excellent as Phil Burbank, a mean and nasty cowboy with little patience, a man you dislike at once; or, well, at least through the first two thirds of the movie. In his outlook Phil has no room for anything but a more or less Darwinian view of us as pretty much the same since leaving the swamps eons ago. Phil was once literary, a Classics major in college, but now, mystifyingly for the viewer, it is as though he’d never read a classic. In fact, Phil has a secret place hidden in some woods where he strips, covers himself with mud, dives into a small lake, and comes out in an obviously symbolic baptismal rite of Natural Selection. Except for Yale, this makes sense for him. So does his disdain for niceties: brother George Burbank (Jesse Plemons) is refined, kind, and wishes to impress his new bride, Rose (Kirsten Durst), by inviting the Governor to dinner and a piano concert by the musical Rose, but Phil not only mars the occasion by refusing to attend (he says characteristically enough that he doesn’t wish to bathe for the occasion after strenuous cowboy work) but even manages beforehand to unnerve Rose to the point her confidence is so weakened that she cannot play the piano. For Darwinian Phil, there can be no putting on airs. But then, in a return to the secret place in the woods in which Phil is now tailed by his naive and sensitive nephew, Peter, sired in widow Rose’s first marriage, the youngster finds gay porno books stashed there and suddenly Phil’s character, at a point very near The End, becomes much more complex. Earlier you had a sense that Phil might be gay, but now there is no follow-up to this impactful certainty about him. I can’t think of a reason why this delay might enhance the story. (This narrational oddity belies Savage’s novel.)

As to Phil’s brother George, there is little to say. We don’t see much of him. He is presented rather sparingly as virtually the antithesis of Phil. George, for example, is not a cowboy; he is seen smiling about in suits. George’s refined wife, Rose, entirely implausibly becomes an alcoholic on very short notice after being bullied by the coarse Phil. (I flashed for a second on A Streetcar Named Desire but whispered an apology to Tennessee Williams though remaining suspicious myself about script sources.)

The Power of the Dog (the words come from a Psalm) is clumsily ended by the sudden death of Phil. The scenario by which he becomes fatally ill is difficult to follow and his death seems forced onto the story since the drama, such as it is, never bends to a finish but seems ever to be flying along.

And, oh yes, lest it be forgotten, the mammoth mountain range in the distance from the ranch creates an illusion visible to some Chosen, most notably Phil, of an enormous, powerful dog. Not sure it’s worth pondering.

You’ve been warned.