The Power of the Dog

The Power of the Dog: a modern western with family dynamics and gay influence

'The Power of the Dog', screenwritten and directed by Jane Campion and based on the 1967 novel by Thomas Savage, is a modern 'psychological western' set in Montana in 1925 but actually filmed in New Zealand. The film, like other masterpieces in the genre in the past, finds meaning and family story through the simple instrumentalities of life on the ranch in different times. The title of the film refers to a natural scenic formation that has hidden significance to some of the characters.

Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) sees himself as the ultimate macho man rancher, and gradually becomes unnerved when his gentler brother George (Jesse Plemons) marries widowed Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst). The centerpiece of the family seems to be the gay son Peter (Kodi Smit McPhee) whose bearing, yes, reminds one of Timothee Chalamet. The skinny, buttoned-up kid might come across as effeminate or non-binary at first, but really is as powerful as anyone else and turns out to be capable of anything (sort of the savoir personality in Dune). Good and evil become intermingled.

The film is segmented into five roman-numeraled parts but the impression of the 128-minute epic is two distinct parts.

In the first part, Rose is setting up a dinner to enlarge the potential political fortunes of her new husband, and plans to make an impression by playing the piano. She practices a folksy piece that I recall from childhood but can't identify right now. As a prelude, George warns Phil about Phil's BO in a curious exposition scene. Phil teases Rose by playing the song before in a 'dueling banjo's' fashion ('Deliverance') but doesn't come to the party until the end.

But Phil suddenly starts taking an interest in Peter, probably stirred by his own latent but simmering homosexuality. He is careless enough to leave some muscle magazines lying around, one with a caption 'weakness is a crime, so why are you a criminal?', sounds like post WW1 mentality. He teaches Peter to ride, and Peter is much better at it than anyone expects, shocking his mom, who sinks into alcoholism, already prodded by Phil and afraid of her son's actually becoming a grown man (her money has already sent him away to college and plans medical school - and there is a curious scene where Peter plays with a rabbit he has caught before killing it to dissect it for practice). Phil wants to make Peter a lasso, and there a curious problem of a lack of rope or hemp (almost Hitchcock like). Peter is clever enough to find a sick animal in the wild for raw material, and then use his own seductiveness to (in his own mind) save his own mother's life. The climax of the film will bring up the medical issues of anthrax (now post 9/11) in a film made during the pandemic.

'Just Westerns' explains the ending (spoilers, embed not available).

Name: 'The Power of the Dog'

Director, writer: Jane Campion (Thomas Savage, novel)

Released: 2021/11 (theatrical limited)

Format: 2.39:1

When and how viewed: Netflix subscription, 2021/12/4

Length: 126

Rating : R

Companies: BBC, Netflix

Link: LA Times

Stars: *****

(Originally Posted: Saturday, December 4, 2021 at 1:30 PM EST)