Watch very carefully as Jane Campion’s mythic, revisionist Western begins. A lone, lean figure is seen, silhouetted on the Montana plains. He’s Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch), a rugged cattle rancher, coldly cultured, calculating and cruel – devoted to the memory of his mentor, Bronco Henry.
Phil’s younger brother George (Jesse Plemons) is totally different. A stout, well-dressed, mild-mannered businessman, genteel George falls in love with melancholy, recently widowed Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), proprietress of the frontier’s Red Mill Inn, working with her effete teenage son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who adorns the rough-hewn tables with decorative paper flowers.
When George marries Rose, moving her into the huge, richly furnished, yet foreboding Burbank homestead, friction is inevitable. Brutish Phil incessantly bullies Peter, maliciously mocking him as a “faggot” in front of the ranch’s rawhide roughnecks.
That traumatizes fragile Rose, who already feels Phil’s simmering, menacing terror, driving her to drink.
Adapted from Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel, it’s psychologically complex, delving into corrosively charismatic masculinity and repressed sexuality. The title comes from 22nd Psalm, as Jesus is suffering on the cross…”Deliver my soul from the sword, my darling from the power of the dog.” The power of the dog stands for deep, uncontrollable urges that can, eventually, destroy us.
Utilizing myriad metaphors, writer/director Jane Campion (Oscar-winner for 1993’s The Piano) subtly crafts a kinky, compelling thriller, working with cinematographer Ari Wegner, who transforms New Zealand’s barren South Island into stark, sparsely populated Montana in 1925. Tt’s visually stunning with a spine-chilling score by Radiohead, Jonny Greenwood.
Best known for playing brainy types like Sherlock Holmes, Alan Turning and Doctor Strange, versatile British actor Benedict Cumberbatch – an ominously glowering Best Actor Oscar contender – learned riding, roping, horseshoeing, banjo playing and bull-calf castration.
Formidable young Australian Kodi Smit-McPhee captures Peter’s slyly edgy, ambiguous essence, while Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons translate the tenderness of their real-life, off-screen marriage.
On the Granger Gauge of 1 to 10, The Power of the Dog is an ethereally suspenseful, unpredictable 8 – in theaters and streaming on Netflix on December 1st.