THE POWER OF THE DOG – Review by Diane Carson

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The Power of the Dog isolates and pressures individuals

New Zealand director Jane Campion has a knack for isolating individuals in a remote, harsh location, applying pressure, and watching civilization unravel. That’s exactly what she does in The Power of the Dog, set on a vast Montana cattle ranch in 1925 where two brothers, the wife, and her son will become immersed in an unnerving psychological battle.

A cruel, Yale-educated Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch), his sensitive brother George (Jesse Plemons), George’s fragile wife Rose (Kirsten Dunst), and her effeminate son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) simmer in a pressure-cooker environment with a delicately handled homosexual subtext. However, the central conflict involves Phil, George, and Rose. It begins on the brothers’ twenty-fifth cattle drive that stops at widow Rose’s Red Mill restaurant where Phil ridicules Rose and George comforts her, returns and marries her. Back at the ranch, Phil’s toxic victimization of Rose and Peter increases, his whistling (Cumberbatch’s idea) a particularly unexpected, terrifying detail, causing Rose to retreat to alcohol.

At this year’s Telluride Film Festival Q&A, Campion spoke of using numerous, subtle details to reveal the important inner lives that drive events. Cumberbatch credited Campion with the suspenseful, slow burn that builds to reveal emotional complexity. As heartlessly cruel as he is intriguing, Phil is often visually isolated in sweeping, gorgeous landscapes or, alternately, in claustrophobic, shadowy interiors. At Telluride, Kirsten Dunst described Rose as suffocated by her loneliness. Staying in character, she and Cumberbatch didn’t talk on the set, and their estrangement comes through with a devastating force.

The title The Power of the Dog comes from the Psalm 22:20, a plea to be saved, “Deliver my soul from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dog,” that is, from cruel attacks on the vulnerable. That person is Rose, delicate, gentle, and defenseless, who finds no peace. Dunst’s fragility contrasts with Cumberbatch’s swaggering, dirty defiance. Plemons, Dunst’s husband also in real life, and Smit-McPhee as Peter add texture to the drama, presented expertly with Campion’s unflinching, fearless gaze. The Power of the Dog is one of this year’s most haunting, well-executed films.

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Diane Carson

Diane Carson, Ph.D., Professor Emerita, has reviewed films for over 25 years and has covered the Cannes, Telluride, Toronto, Palm Springs, and Sundance festivals. She writes for KDHX, 88.1 FM. St. Louis’ community radio. One of the founders of the St. Louis International Film Festival, she continues to serve on juries. A past president of the University Film and Video Association, she taught film studies and production at St. Louis Community College and at Webster University. Her new book, written with two colleagues, is “Appetites and Anxieties: Food, Film, and the Politics of Representation,” Wayne State U. Press, 2014.