The Power of the Dog (2021)
December 2, 2021 4:26 AM - Subscribe

Charismatic rancher Phil Burbank inspires fear and awe in those around him. When his brother George brings home a new wife (Rose) and her son (Peter), Phil torments them until he finds himself exposed to the possibility of love.

Written and directed by Jane Campion (her first film since 1994's "The Piano") and starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons, Kirsten Dunst, and Kodi Smit-McPhee. Filmed in New Zealand as a stand-in for early 20th century Montana. Memorable score by Jonny Greenwood.

Trigger warning: physical and emotional abuse, gore, animal cruelty.

This film is based on a 1967 novel by Thomas Savage, who drew from his experiences in rural Montana. You'll see reminders of "Brokeback Mountain," "Badlands," "There Will Be Blood," and even "Apocalypse Now" as the film progresses.

It's thought that Thomas Savage, who married a woman, was in the closet. Thankfully there's no equivocation about LGBTQ+ issues in the film.

What does it mean to "grow with experience"? How does one live life as a person of honor? And what to do about toxic masculinity, really? The film poses all these questions, I think.

As I watched I totally forgot I'd ever seen Benedict Cumberbatch in anything else, and I hope the same happens for you, not to slight his past performances.

This film "takes a turn" about 2/3 of the way in, but until then you might wonder where it's going. Give it the time it deserves. Also, if you saw "The Piano" and didn't like it, give this film a chance. Far better IMO.
It’s easy to sum up the movie: it is at once a revisionist western, a mystery (pay attention to the gloves!), an exploration of masculinity and femininity, a lament for the limits the world puts on us and those we shoulder until we can no longer bear them. And while it is a tragedy, it is also a liberation story, including for a genre again renewed by a brilliant, unfettered director.

Manohla Dargis, NYT (no paywall)
Although it was made in New Zealand, you could believe that its Wild West buildings had been standing on the bare Montana landscape for years. The actors' horse-riding, rope-splicing and, yes, bull-castrating techniques appear so effortless that their training must have taken weeks of effort. And the characters have the quirky habits and hobbies of real people rather than Western stereotypes: just when you think you know them, you're surprised by a scholarly reference to ancient Rome, a brief appearance of some doll's house furniture, or a sudden furious bout of hula-hooping.

Nicholas Barber, BBC Culture
“The Power of the Dog” contains some of the best use of music in a movie this year. Jonny Greenwood’s work underlines and emphasizes many of the actions playing out on-screen. String compositions twist and turn as sharply as the movie’s plot, like a jagged undercurrent pulling our emotions in certain directions.

Monica Castillo,
posted by Sheydem-tants (13 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I'm excited to watch this. I haven't seen most of campions work but this looks great and very much up my alley.
posted by Carillon at 11:54 PM on December 3, 2021

Damn, this movie. I just watched it and can't quite decide if I liked it or not. The music and the tone of the film just put me on edge the whole time and the plot didn't go anywhere I was expecting.
posted by octothorpe at 7:48 PM on December 4, 2021 [1 favorite]

Greenwood's score is just amazing.
posted by octothorpe at 8:23 PM on December 4, 2021 [3 favorites]

Octothorpe, I had the same thought! Couldn't decide if I liked it or not.

I thought the story written on paper sounded compelling, loved the visuals and the score, good acting, etc. But I had SO many questions during the viewing and where it was going that it took me out of it. Where did the husband go in the whole middle of the film? What was the real point of her being so nervous to play "pinano"? Why did we even have that whole dinner scene?

Plus, I thought Kirsten Dunst's character felt like a man had written it and therefore fell flat. Why did she fall COMPLETELY APART just because BC's character was being a dick? She had no problem running a business all on her own when her first husband died, and seemed to be going all right.
posted by knownassociate at 7:05 AM on December 21, 2021

Plus, I thought Kirsten Dunst's character felt like a man had written it and therefore fell flat. Why did she fall COMPLETELY APART just because BC's character was being a dick? She had no problem running a business all on her own when her first husband died, and seemed to be going all right.

Hm, I hadn't thought to question her frailty- I assumed that she might be good at some things, but vulnerable in others. I suppose it makes the character less believable, if you feel like her personality doesn't track.

How would you have written that character, knownassociate, to make her more believable?
posted by ishmael at 9:45 AM on December 21, 2021

Plus, I thought Kirsten Dunst's character felt like a man had written it and therefore fell flat.

Jane Campion is the only credit for the screenplay but she did base it on a novel written by Thomas Savage and maybe she stuck too close to the source material. I agree that her turn from independent businesswomen to drunken wreck seemed to be too quick and not motivated well enough.
posted by octothorpe at 2:24 PM on December 21, 2021 [3 favorites]

This was just a great picture all around. Love that Campion felt absolutely no need to handhold us to the ending, and just let it happen and let us figure it out.

The soundtrack was also superb, although I would never have guessed in a million years though that it was made by Radiohead's guitarist.
posted by General Malaise at 10:37 AM on January 2, 2022 [1 favorite]

I avoided this awhile because I don't have an infinite appetite for art westerns.

I liked it though! Agreed w/ everybody on the score. After watching Matrix 4 it was nice to see something that had good use of music. (I suppose Green Knight was in the mix there but all I thought about its score is wow he is ripping the fuck off of Arvo Pärt.) It all felt just well crafted.

I loved not knowing what was coming. My SO and I did believe that somebody was gonna kill Phil. I mean I wanted him dead 5 minutes in, but I thought it could go some other way.

Rose tracked for me. People can be strong and weak in different ways. The scene where George comes over to help serve tables says a lot. Rose can't stand up to her guests, and it melts her heart that George does it for her. But it's kind of a lie. She doesn't appreciate, I don't think, that George is able to do this just because of his family name and in reality George is actually so socially inert. George is so withdrawn inward that he avoids the whole second half of the movie lmao. He's numb to humiliation in a way she very much isn't. The movie soft-pedals it a bit, but I think she too is intimidated by the Burbank name and feels like she is out of her depth, which she sorta is.

(I mean it didn't really soft-pedal it that much. That ranch house was a fucking mansion; and the Governor comes over just because George wants him to. But from the view inside it's easy to discount that, and they take some pretty big and undefined time leaps forward and I think w/ Rose especially the movie doesn't put everything out there explicitly; no "PETER: My dad worried I was too strong" "PHIL: *Scoffs hubrisfully*")

I do wish the movie would have been more subtle about the rope. We didn't need the doctor to saw gawrsh maybe it's Anthrax. I did really love the shot right after the power of the dog Bible quote shot. They make it look like Peter was continuing to read the Bible in his bedroom but when the camera gets around he's caressing his murder rope.
posted by fleacircus at 6:43 AM on January 7, 2022 [5 favorites]

So are we just going to give a pass to yet another Bury Your Gays plot? Not to mention a gay borderline-psychotic killer? I thought we'd moved past that, at least in high-brow award-worthy movies, but I guess not.

I don't mean to say that no good movie henceforth can ever have either of those (although part of me wants to), but IMO it's a very high bar to clear to justify either, let alone both in the same movie. Yes, the movie has interesting things to say about toxic masculinity and internalized homophobia and how they are inextricably intertwined, and yes, the acting performances are very good all around, but for me it's still not enough to clear that very high bar. YMMV.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 11:22 AM on January 7, 2022 [4 favorites]

Yeah I also very much came away from the film with the same though DevilsAdvocate. I was a bit surprised that the movie really seemed to endorse the killing as well. I think there were some really interesting moments in the film, but it ended up feeling a bit flat? I'm nor sure I just saw it tonight so I'll have to sit with it some more.
posted by Carillon at 11:30 PM on January 16, 2022 [1 favorite]

Rose's implosion felt believable to me - she went from her own domain (with a piano that played itself!) to a home that is maybe Phil's or maybe the housekeeper's or maybe the Old Lady's but definitely not hers. Also, judgy in-laws and intermittent high-stakes performances! What fun.

I found Phil the most relatable of the characters, which wasn't comfortable. I wished someone would stand up to him, but I sympathized with his attempt to carve out a place that suited him and his refusal to perform for society. I kept waiting for him to do something beyond the pale, but he was just medium obnoxious and aggravating. (And when he does try to be less awful, it gets him killed. So.)

And then Peter blows in for the summer and gets bullied (again/still) and is out of place and overly sure of himself. I guessed how that was going to end from the synopsis and the opening voiceover and the five-act-tragedy structure, but it was hard to watch him diagnosing Phil and deciding to kill him for the greater (heteronormative) good.

I didn't take it as a happy ending, and I'm not sure the movie meant it to be one. There's no closing voiceover to reassure us; we only see the very immediate aftermath of Phil's death. Is Rose happy to host her in-laws for the holidays, or is that George being oblivious again? Did murdering Phil solve anything that moving to town wouldn't have?

On the other hand: if it wasn't meant to be a happy ending, then maybe it could be a little clearer that scapegoating and murdering the weird gay man is wrong? I don't know. It was an interesting movie, but I'm not sure how I feel about it.
posted by mersen at 4:10 AM on March 6, 2022

1. I don’t know about you, but to this particular gay it felt pretty unequivocal that this was a case of weird gay man vs. weird gay man. I don’t think Peter was reenforcing heteronormativity, I think he’s going to go home to his Very Good Friend ‘The Professor’ and live happily ever after.

2. Phil’s harassment of Rose went far, far past the point of “obnoxious” for me. It felt clear that he intended to destroy her life and felt good about doing so. He wasn’t a stereotypical “evil gay man” because his sexuality wasn’t part of his menace; rather he was a cruel, hateful man (though not a literally evil man) who happened to be gay.

I personally think that reducing this to JUST Phil’s sexuality, or treating Phil JUST as a monster or a victim, is far too reductive for this nuanced and beautiful movie. As a gay person I am so hungry for depictions of gay characters that feel like whole complex people rather than stereotypes, and it’s frustrating to hear “this movie is homophobic because this interesting, deeply human villain is gay.”
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:27 AM on March 6, 2022 [5 favorites]

Peter's whole Young Norman Bates thing felt a little homophobic to me. Because of his feelings for his mother, he murders his dad and Phil.

I was mostly left wondering who writes their name on porn. That, and the mystery of Cumberbatch's accent were my main takeaways.
posted by betweenthebars at 5:14 PM on March 28, 2022

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