This month we’re catching up on the awards season films we haven’t caught yet, which leaves quite a few options open to us. I’m very behind on what’s been buzzing this year.
This movie’s been on my list for a while but I’ve never really had the urge to sit down to it. Much as I appreciate the work of JC – and the cast involved – it just never seemed like the right time. Plus, I’m still doing the Pandemic thing of re-watching things I’ve seen a hundred times before, like 30 Rock.
Comfort is key, alright?
But let’s get down to brass tacks. Is this Gothic western any bloody good?
“Deliver my soul from the sword. My darling from the power of the dog.”
The Power of the Dog (2021)
Charismatic rancher Phil Burbank inspires fear and awe in those around him. When his brother brings home a new wife and her son, Phil torments them until he finds himself exposed to the possibility of love.
Directors: Jane Campion
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons
TW: Mention of suicide, animal dissection
Rancher Phil Burbank (Cumberbuns) isn’t exactly the warm and fluffy type. He holds court among his peers, who enjoy his stories (mainly about his friend and mentor Bronco Henry) but are clearly intimidated by his rough exterior. By contrast, his brother George (Plemons) is softly spoken and empathetic. The pair live alone – apart from a maid and their housekeeper – and employ a number of farm hands. I think, I actually don’t really know what ranchers do. Wrangle things?
One day during a meal at a local restaurant, the owner, widowed Rose (Dunst) and her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) fall foul of Phil’s wicked tongue. His comments about Peter (who doesn’t fit Phil’s masculine ideal) upset not only the boy but his mother, who is caught crying by George. Not long afterwards George and Rose marry – and she goes to live with the brothers.
Phil is just about as welcoming as you’d expect, failing to light the boiler to welcome the new Mrs Burbank on the night she arrives, and barely addressing her. George pushes Phil to make more of an effort with his personal hygiene for his new wife’s sake which causes him to stubbornly miss an important dinner with their parents. And so begins his dedicated campaign to drive Rose out, or at the very least, to the bottle.
Phil does have a somewhat secretive routine however, which involves him bathing in the river and stashing Broncho Henry memorabilia which he seems rather attached to. Could this gruff and stinking cowboy be hiding a painful secret?
When Peter comes to stay at the ranch over Summer break from college, things look set to become even more fraught on the farm. Rose is nervous when Phil takes her son under his wing – after Pete catches him swimming naked in the lake. He also steps in when the boy receives homophobic taunts from the other men. Soon he starts making Peter a braided rope and teaches him how to ride, and it becomes clear he’s molding himself into Pete’s mentor, whether he likes it or not. Pete in turn starts to open up about his father’s suicide. Phil wonders out loud about Rose’s drinking, which has intensified ever since she arrived (can’t think why).
Later Phil admits that Bronco Henry saved his life by lying with him one night to keep him warm. Peter asks if they were naked, which we all want to know frankly. The ensuing silence seems to say it all.
As Rose continues to worry about her son and Phil spending time together – and her drinking gets worse – she takes a pop at him by giving a collection of hides away to a Native American tradesman in exchange for a beautiful pair of gloves. Phil is distraught – and raging – as this means he can’t finish the rope. Luckily, Peter has a procured a hide of his own and is willing to donate the cured strips from it to the project.
Having obtained a bad cut to his hand during a recent work assignment, Phil’s health takes a nasty turn the next morning and this threatens to change the farm’s dynamic for good. But he must get the rope to Pete, above all else.
The actor Sam Elliott was recently criticised for his comments about The Power of the Dog. It seems he wasn’t pleased about the depiction of cowboys running around shirtless in leather chaps, which is strange because by definition I always think of them like this. Cowboy country just seems so innately homoerotic.
This is a beautiful film. It looks gorgeous and the performances are really good. It’s slow and moody though which I happen to enjoy but could be off-putting. Cumberbuns is at his best as the complicated Phil and my heart went out to him many times even though he’s a cruel bastard. Those few moments of him alone in his secret glenn speak to his devastating loneliness and loss – and it’s just all so sad.
The climax of the film seems very sudden but it actually paces out perfectly and is incredibly sinister. It also challenges the notion of strength – something Phil himself has been keen to control throughout. While Pete doesn’t fit the old ideal of what is masculine and powerful, he has a quiet and ambitious streak which pays off for him (and ultimately everybody). He’s an interesting character, as his actions (and preparation) hint at a pitch dark soul and it would be interesting to see where he goes from here.
Dunst is great as Rose too but she’s not given an awful lot to do beside play wife and mother. The subtle torture Phil puts her through is so chilling. The scene in which she’s practicing piano and he mirrors the tune with his own instrument (not that instrument) is premium gaslighting.
Camps won Best Director for this film, making her the third woman to win in this category in the history of the Academy Awards. She deserves it as far as I’m concerned. TPOTD is a powerful Gothic fairy tale in a Western’s stinking clothing – and I liked it.
– Genres: Drama ∙ Romance ∙ Western
– IMDb user rating: 6.9
– My score: 4.5/5
– Runtime: 126 mins
3 thoughts on “The Power of the Dog review”
Ha ha, I’m going to be disappointed if Peter doesn’t someday become full-on Wednesday Addams. Probably for the best that he’s an only child.
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I would very much be into that story!
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