Some novel-based films demand one to read the book. This is the case with Jane Campion’s much touted new Netflix release, “ The Power of the Dog”. While this may be a good thing, for certainly Thomas Savage’s 1967 book deserves the read, it should not be required in order to understand the film’s main theme of self hate.
There is much about this quasi- revenge film that is laudable. The acting is superb and the attention to period detail draws us in by the remembrance of things past. Even the cooking implements speak of the early 1900’s. Filmed in New Zealand, our setting is told to be a wealthy Montana cattle ranch in 1925. The owners are two very dissimilar brothers. One is a bully cowboy, who happens to be a Yale graduate in the Classics. The other a gentle soul, a college drop out who has trouble finding words to express himself. Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) is the master curmudgeon with the smart aleck mouth and mean spirit. He tells his younger brother, George, ( Jesse Plemons ) who he refers to as ” Fatso” that they were raised by a wolf like Romulus and Remus. The elder Phil is attached to George. They even sleep in the same room in twin beds ,though there are many available. Phil reminds George that their first cattle run together was twenty-five years ago. This fact is the one positive statement offered to his brother during the entire film .
There are housekeepers and cooks and heavily carved staircases and parlors. But then again there are rowdy ranch hands and heavy chaps and beautiful mountains and sloping foothills in big sky country. Cinematographer Ari Wegner captures it all. She glides the camera through all shades of brown from seamed stockings to bull testicles, from polished saddles to mud baths and secret watering holes.
The plot arc is set once Kirsten Dunst steps in as the “suicide widow” , the term coined by hateful Phil once he sees that George is smitten with Mrs. Rose Gordon. Rose has a very effeminate son, whom Phil delights in mocking and mortifying. In one scene, he has a dozen cowboys surround him on horses and call him “ Miss Nancy” and ” Little Lord Fauntleroy”. There is irony here since Rose’s son, Peter, will become anything but a “Goody-two-shoes”.
No viewer will be surprised that the brutal cowboy is a suppressed gay horse beater and bull castrator. There is no need for “ a big reveal” even before the sensual scene with the silk fabric caressing Phil’s genitals and face. To his credit, Cumberbatch makes us feel Phil’s loneliness. Jonny Greenwood’s score supports the popular songs of the era and enhances mood and suspense.
George and Rose marry. And more subject matter like alcoholism and anti-intellectualism is introduced. The film-script is complex. Dunst provides a multi-dimensional Rose. She is a grieving widow, a protective mother, a closet alcoholic, a berated and brutalized sister-in-law, a Native American sympathizer, and a kind and loving wife. Rose understands condescension. Dunst’s face makes us see her awareness as she tosses back her orange blossom cocktail. Dunst is good, if not better than Cumberbatch.
Jesse Plemons, as George, is perfection, minus the not too hidden body padding . The film would not be possible without him. Plemons is the perfect foil, whom it pains us to see locking the bathroom door to protect Rose’s privacy, and buying a baby grand to promote her amateurish piano playing. His George serves salad in Rose’s restaurant when she needs aid, and he cries because it is so nice to not be alone. George feels Rose is marvelous. Phil calls her “a cheap schemer”.
The hardest character to develop in the Biblical titled “ The Power of the Dog” is Peter, Rose’s son. Kodi Smith-McPhee plays the trauma- ridden teen, who has cut his father down from his suicide noose. Peter blows off taunts and ridicule by gyrating a hula hoop. He is an innocent coping until he hatches a revenge plan.
Phil Burbank is always looking at the far-off hills. He is impressed that Peter, too, sees the same barking dog-like shadow he has always seen. This seen cloud image marks them as the same. Phil begins to mentor Pete. He teaches him how to dry rawhide and braid rope. We get over- wrought symbols of posts being rammed into the ground. After Peter kills an injured rabbit to put it out of his misery, Phil praises him for his strength of will. Peter tells Phil, “ My father used to fear that I was too strong.”
The Psalm 22:20 ” Deliver my soul from the sword, my darling, from the power of the dog.” is what we are left to read. Yet, Rudyard Kipling’s rather silly poetic line, “..beware of giving your heart to a dog to tear..” makes more sense to this reviewer. The final frame of Peter seeing his mother and George happily coming home leaves him free to take his own life like his father did. Thus, the last frame of the braided rope tossed under the bed, a hand’s reach away. I will be reading Thomas Savage’s book for psychological clarity, because the film left too many questions.