Sunday, December 19, 2021

The Power of the Dog: Movie Review

The shifting of power and evil.
A 1920s Montana-set western, The Power of the Dog starts with the focus on two rancher brothers, George (Jesse Plemons) and Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch), who couldn't be more different. George is the quiet soft-spoken one and Phil is the mean one calling George fat and stupid and insults everyone in his path. The next people in his path are mother and son, Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee).   2021

Directed by: Jane Campion

Screenplay by: Jane Campion
Based on the novel by Thomas Savage

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kodi Smit-McPhee

Slowly (because if this movie is anything at all, it's slow), the focus starts shifting. Much to the chagrin of Phil, George becomes enamored with Rose, which also starts shifting Peter out of the picture. As Phil is not one for giving up power, he does not let George and Rose get settled in married life. Focus shifts once again to Phil and Rose's contentious relationship. It's a movie about power and changing relationships, and with shifts in how characters are perceived, power can change hands.

Benedict Cumberbatch is rarely in evil mode in his other starring performances, but Phil is unrelenting in his authoritarian rule. Phil believes that power is gained by physical strength. He doesn't see that his power is usurped by Peter's knowledge and conviction. Like Plemons' George, Kodi Smit-McPhee's Peter is quiet and soft-spoken. Peter is slim and gangly, he helps out his mother and makes flowers out of paper. Phil calls him a sissy boy and likes to torment him. Unbeknownst to every other character, Peter's strength is an internal one, and even the audience doesn't see that he has the upper hand until the very end.

Hopefully Smit-McPhee's performance is the one that gets singled out for awards as Peter is perfectly tied to the movie. He's unassuming for much of the story but each of his scenes adds a kernel of his knowledge which builds to the powerful denouement and the final shift in power. It can be a hard movie to get into; it's slow and when the focus is on Phil, the audience is left wondering why we're watching such a mean-spirited person. But the shifts in characters and relationships are subtle and paint a compelling portrait of influence and internal strength. The audience may know where their sympathies lie until the very end which shakes everything to its core and finally lays bare what this story is really about.

It's the ending that makes The Power of the Dog as good as it is. I didn't get as much out of Phil and his guidance by the ghost of Bronco Henry as many others did because I think it's clear that's where he gets his dominance from -- well, that and the New Zealand hills in the shape of a dog that are substituting for the Montana foothills. Ultimately, The Power of the Dog is an interesting and unexpected tale of masculinity and evil.