“The Power of the Dog,” December 7, 2021, Netflix. I’ve been a fan of Jane Campion’s filmmaking for many years. This one is especially welcome. Set in Montana (shot in New Zealand along the South Island plains and Alps), this is set in 1925 and drawn from a novel by Thomas Savage, himself a closeted writer and Brandeis U. professor of English.
Philip (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons) are two wealthy, very unalike brothers running a large cattle ranch on the plains by the foothills of the mountains. Still sharing the same bedroom, Philip is rough, rangy, and very much the cowhand. He is domineering and, as he wishes, cruel. His hero and mentor was Bronco Henry, the man who taught him what it meant to be a cowboy. George is heavy-set, quiet, and wears a coat and bowtie to drive herd. His brother still calls him “fatso” and makes fun of his lack of intellect. Phil, after all, was Phi Beta Kappa in Classics at Yale. “Georgie Boy” was ill-suited for college, although help pulled him through.
Yet Phil is also strangely equalitarian in a totally classed way
But their world shifts when George is drawn to, woos, and weds Rose (Kirsten Dunst), the widow of a local doctor and the mother of Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a slender, effeminate young man who is definitely not cut out for the rough-and-tumble life of the trail. Peter’s arrival from college and, soon to be, medical school, exacerbates conflicts all ‘round. Phil and the gang taunt Peter mercilessly for his manner while loathing Rose as a gold-digger and alcoholic as she drinks to self-medicate in the face of his cruelties and abuses. But it also provokes a desire in Phil to make Peter his prodigy. And Peter accedes to this, but very much for his own purposes.
This is a wonderfully written, eerie, and disturbing film. The directing and acting by all principles is simply first class, although I found Plemons work too flat for the part. He’s the foil to Phil’s excesses here, but it is, nonetheless, simply a bit too deadened for my sense of the play and plot. Cumberbatch, Dunst, and Smit-McPhee excel in this twisted tale. Power is often more complicated than it seems.