The Power of the Dog

The Power of the Dog ★★★★

When my father passed, I wanted nothing more than my mother’s happiness. For what kind of man would I be if I did not help my mother? If I did not save her.

Kicking off with Peter's assertive voiceover (in order to prevent Phil from repeatedly bullying Rose) did seem like I knew where this'd be headed. And for a movie that I ultimately loved...it took some time to appear subversive, at least for how the Burbanks and Gordons are pitted together on domestic terrain. But what Campion achieves remarkably is a sense of furtive unease. It's been a dozen years since her brittle romanticism in Bright Star and this transfixing western couldn't be any more different. Along with Montana's stark expansiveness, Greenwood's nerve-shredding score, and career-best work from Cumberbatch as a loutish rancher who's eyes are cocked, are elements that wholly define its dauntless vision.

Some of these landscapes are so richly considered (e.g. shimmering light over Montana's mountains) while enough history between the Burbank brothers is expressed from Bronco Henry's rugged tutelage. The main portion is Phil's eponymous power, though, often belittled through banjo and whistling taunts of Strauss' "Radetzky March" (a tune that Rose practices on the piano), to frequently demeaning George as a weak-willed fatso, and then for Peter's effeminate nature which turns Rose into a fragile wreck. (Even Phil's crew are pointedly despicable jeerers just like him.) "Got himself tangled up with a suicide widow and her half-cooked son", he writes to his mother about George's romantic affair, and from then on the power games are edgily conveyed.

Yes, Cumberbatch digs into Phil's repellent awfulness, but his quietly isolated moments (like taking a mud bath by the river and caressing himself with a cloth) deepen him even more. The most absorbing scenes are between his sense of repressed queerness and Peter's surreptitious vagueness. On that spectrum, Kodi Smit-McPhee is enigmatic without ever telegraphing Peter's impulses, but credit should be given to the remaining cast. Seeing how Dunst's tender humanity is switched for frozen despair (just by listening to the sound of Phil's spurs) is some of her strongest work, and Plemons' distinction between emerging as unaffected to Phil's pudgy abuse and yet standing up for Rose's happiness adds an extra layer to him.

On December 1, this'll hit Netflix, though it'd be much worthier in theaters. Each of the vital elements—Montana's cinnamon beauty, Greenwood's jangling compositions, and Campion's measured purpose are intended in that format. Also, it could be considered a claustrophobic chamber piece, with almost every shifting dynamic being explored on the Burbank ranch. (I get chills just thinking about each casual zoom-in when Rose plays "Radetzky March" and Phil is creepily doing a duet from upstairs.) Not having read Thomas Savage's novel (though I really want to now), Campion's choice to have Roman numeral chapters came off as superfluous, but that's only a swift impediment to its structure. This film is simply symbolized by the act of twisting a rope. It's braided and pulled...purposefully tightening the knot. An excellent film.