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Phil Burbank is a 1920s rancher, a natural rider, and a capable leader of men. He’s also a sadist, a master of psychological abuse, and one of the scariest villains you’ll see in a movie this year, thanks to Benedict Cumberbatch’s terrifying, mesmerizing performance.
Even so, perhaps less scary than proud, he enjoys his control of the land and its big and small things. He is especially proud of his eyesight, which enables him to see things that others cannot, such as the bizarre, enigmatic vision that shadows create in the hills near his Montana ranch. “Is there something?” asks one of his men. “Not if you can’t see it,” replies Phil.
“The Power of the Dog”, Jane Campion’s superbly played, insidiously captivating adaptation of Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel, is about the mystery of the visible and the hidden. Like this literature, it builds on a series of cleverly disguised surprises, which modern discourse calls spoilers, but which are better understood as ingenious perceptual tricks.
With its morning cattle drives in front of a melancholy gray sky and rugged landscapes, this film has a lot to offer. (Ari Wegner’s great cinematography is dying to be seen in one of the theaters showing the film before it hits Netflix on December 1st.) Filmed in Campion’s own New Zealand, which seems oddly apt in a film about deception.
Power of the Dog First Look
At first glance, Phil and his brother George (Jesse Plemons) seem like the epitome of sibling harmony who keep their ranch while their city-based parents (Frances Conroy and Peter Carroll) are away. Their differences are striking, although they mostly complement each other.
Phil is definitely an alpha in a movie where dogs are both vital workers and powerful symbols: he is a man of the earth, like his revered mentor Bronco Henry, whose memory he clings to like a talisman that always gets its hands dirty and bloody and only seldom wash in a nearby river.
George, called “Fatso” by Phil, is his gentleman counterpart, always freshly showered, nicely dressed and always polite. The two have a direct sibling relationship, but the air between them is full of tension, as if even the slightest jolt could shatter their fragile dynamics.
The Burbank brothers and their husbands are shocked when they stop at an inn and restaurant run by a widow named Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst) and served by their soft-spoken son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Phil unleashes a volley of abuse after glancing at the carefully cut paper flower decorations on the dining room table – and the moldings, a young man of elegant manners who designed them – in a chain of events that coincides with finely regulated Tension unfolds.
Rose bursts into tears over the devastating attack on her son, which George quickly wipes away. His consolation becomes quicker but truer, and the two marry shortly afterwards – a step that makes Phil angry, also because he thinks that it is his sole fault.
Campion purposely shortened Savage’s text – Rose’s first husband, still alive in the first few chapters of the novel, has been dead for four years at the beginning of the film – and broken the narrative with chapter breaks at this rate rather than splitting the story’s rising momentum.
When Peter goes to college to study medicine and Rose settles on the Burbanks ranch, George does everything to make her comfortable, while Phil does just the opposite. Campion knows a thing or two about young brides in difficult situations, and fans of her 1993 masterpiece, The Piano, will no doubt be delighted when George Rose gently purchases a small grand piano as a gift. (Fans of Dunst and Plemons who are a true couple are comforted on-screen by Campion’s fleeting moments of happiness in their marriage.)
Phil’s gently controlling influence spreads through the house like a poisonous mist, filling the dull, cavernous rooms until they feel as wide and restless as the surrounding grasslands, stifling Rose’s love for the piano and her spirit.
Campion, who has just won the directing award at the Venice International Film Festival, is in a way turning the traditions of her supposed genre upside down. “The Power of the Dog” is a psychological thriller disguised as a western and a possible love story disguised as a psychological thriller. Everything from Grant Major’s minimalist, enveloping production design to Jonny Greenwood’s nerve-wracking dissonances catches our attention.
The faces of its four extraordinary actors are perhaps the most remarkable landscapes in the film. The camera lingers on Smit-gaunt, McPhee’s delicate features that can hide a lot, and Plemons’ soft face that hides almost nothing. Rose shrinks under the weight of Phil’s serial humiliations and falls into alcoholism, drinking the alcohol she previously disavowed.
Meanwhile, Dunst grimaces in a mask of pain and despair as Rose shrinks under the weight of Phil’s serial humiliations, falling into alcoholism and drinking the alcohol she previously disavowed. (The film begins in 1925, a year before Montana became the first state to end enforcement of the ban.)
Then there is Cumberbatch, who is just as captivating in a long shot of him on a horse as in a sinister close-up. The rough frontier is not the first character for Cumberbatch, known for his clean-shaven elegance and British schoolmaster’s diction, but his feat of blending steely wit and ruthless physicality makes you wonder why no one thought of it before.
Still, he seems to draw just as much from his own screen story as from her. You can feel that when Phil compares himself and his brother in an early speech with Romulus and Remus; he’s smarter than his guys and spurs and dirty habits suggest, which in itself is unsettling. His hatred of Rose and Peter seemed to stem from something darker and vengeful than simple raw stupidity.
The power of the dog Peter returns
The Hollywood Reporter
When Peter returns from school to visit his mother, this vengeance seems to fade – or is it deepening? – and, against all odds, begins to develop an uncanny affinity with his former tormentor. Is Phil taking the young man under his wing because he has changed his mind, or is he just trying to keep his enemy close?
The ambiguity of intent is fascinating; for the first time he seems to have met someone whose penetrating gaze is comparable to his own. Peter no longer makes paper flowers; he dissects small animals for research, and he does it with the clinical dispassion his calling requires.
His actions may remind you of Phil’s own surgical expertise when he braided a rope – a process that requires strength and endurance, as well as sensitivity and coordination. It’s also a great visual metaphor for how the threads of the story are tightly and inexorably woven together.
Campion’s trademark is his tactile attention to detail, which stands out in a genre that is dominated by a wide arc. Holly Hunter’s virtuoso talent with the Ivory in “The Piano”, but also the passion with Abbie Cornish in the exquisite romance “Bright Star” from the 19th.
Campion has spent her career delving into the deep inner life of this and other women and awakening desires that they often have to suppress or subsume. It’s no surprise that she has a razor-sharp understanding of the twisted norms and inconsistencies of American masculinity.
“The Power of the Dog” represents Campion’s victorious return to form, a nervous bet that turned into one 11 years after “Bright Star” (she co-directed and co-wrote two seasons of the mystery drama series) renewed confirmation of their mastery. Top of the Lake ”in the meantime). Although this part of Montana is geographically novel, nothing about its mysteries and undercurrents feels strange to a filmmaker who has always felt most comfortable in open spaces.
The story is handled with puzzle box precision by Campion, but the movie’s power extends beyond its mechanical structure and its shocking, emotionally rewarding conclusion. It remains in these tense times when Phil, so proud of his vision and yet so blind to the human implications, catches a glimpse of what lies ahead too late.
Campion frames him several times through a barn door or window and holds him in a landscape that seems as small and finite as he is. It’s no longer terrifying; instead he’s scared.
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