Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog is exceedingly gorgeous in its landscapes where New Zealand fills in for Montana circa 1925. It features four superb performances ranging from borderline or full throttle psychopaths to one character trying to keep a semblance of order on the remote cattle ranch setting. The score by Johnny Greenwood is haunting as each chapter ratchets up the tension. A lot of Power is indeed compelling, but I’d be untruthful if I didn’t say you have to comb through some laborious sections as well.
Based on a 1967 novel by Thomas Savage (where the themes were far more taboo than in 2021), we open with Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) declaring a need to protect his fragile mother Rose (Kirsten Dunst) at all costs. Widowed under tragic circumstances, she runs an inn frequented by cowboys and their bosses. When kindly ranch owner George Burbank (Jesse Plemons) comes into town, a rather unromantic bond is formed with Rose and they marry. This does not sit well with George’s opposite of kindly brother Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) who sees his new sister-in-law as an oppotunist. He also takes to mocking Peter, an effeminate aspiring surgeon.
When the dysfunctional new family reaches the cold Burbank estate (in temperature and atmosphere), Phil’s tormenting continues for the new houseguests. This leads to Rose’s alcoholism while George is a helpless bystander. Yet Phil’s own backstory, including a mentorship with a departed male figure known as Bronco Henry, hints that Peter’s presence may cut a bit too close to the bone.
An unwashed bully walking a tightrope of repression, Cumberbatch is given a scenery chewing role. And what scenery as we forget that Campion’s native New Zealand doesn’t really look like Montana. Dunst is a sorrowful figure who can’t play piano at a fancy party dinner that the Governor (Keith Carradine) attends. She can’t play the happy wife either and her union with George seems born out of convenience. Plemons is saddled with least developed character. All three are first-rate in the portrayals.
Smit-McPhee is the most intriguing of them all. Peter’s character is certainly ahead of his time given the era and it turns out he’s steps ahead of where we still the plot eventually turn.
I say eventually because the pacing of Power is a bit off. It takes awhile to ramp up. That’s made more tolerable by the beauty surrounding the ugly situation this quartet finds themselves in. The source material is over a half century old though it does feature a call for personal protective equipment that feels urgent. The catcalls greeting Peter in the near century old time are tragic but his response reaps narrative rewards. This Dog saves most of the bite for later. Getting there is ultimately worth it.
*** (out of four)