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Contradictory complexity and exquisite isolation – ‘The Power of the Dog’

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Few film genres lend themselves as well to binary ideas as the western. There’s a fundamental divide at the heart of most movies like this – black hats/white hats, urban/rural – that allows a lot of room for different sorts of storytelling exploration. And when filmmakers find ways to subvert that shorthand, the possibilities for interesting, dynamic filmmaking expand exponentially.

“The Power of the Dog” is the latest film from writer/director Jane Campion. Based on the 1967 Thomas Savage novel of the same name, the movie delves deep into the internalized toxicity that can spring from tough-guy isolationism. It’s a look at how damage done early on can fester and scar, fracturing our capability to forge genuine human connection and leaving behind little more than a misshapen and often malevolent masculinity.

It is also a beautifully-crafted work, one that evokes the stark beauty that springs from nature’s emptiness. It’s a story of the many forms that love can take, and how not all of those forms are healthy … as well as the consequences that can arise when those incompatible loves come crashing together. And it’s a story of discovery – both internal and external – and what can happen if and when we’re unprepared for the realities therein.

In 1925 Montana, the Burbank brothers Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons) are wealthy ranch owners, having taken over operations from their aging parents. George is a genial and slightly awkward man, one who seems not entirely comfortable in the rough-and-tumble frontier world. Phil, on the other hand, is a man seemingly born for the range, deeply intelligent but also able to find common ground with the hardscrabble day-to-day of the ranchhand.

After a cattle drive, Phil and George – along with the rest of the men – wind up dining at a local inn, run by a widow named Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst) and her teenaged son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Their visit is marked by tension, as Phil (and by extension the other cowboys) mock the gentle and offbeat Peter as he serves as their waiter. George, however, has none of it; in fact, he finds himself quite taken with Rose. After a few subsequent visits, George and Rose decide to marry.

But when George brings his new bride to live at the ranch, it isn’t long before Phil’s suspicions and deep-seated emotional issues start to cause problems. The tension steadily builds as Phil goes out of his way to stoke Rose’s discomfort, all in George’s occasionally figurative and often literal absence. And these tensions are only elevated when young Peter comes to live at the ranch as well.

As Rose seeks solace at the bottom of a bottle, Peter is drawn to this new and unfamiliar setting. His curiosity abounds, no matter how hard the others try to push him away. His gentle nature is out of place in the harshness of this environment.

Phil initially seeks to punish Peter for his differences, taking advantage of the youngster’s interest in the various logistics of the ranch life. But slowly, Phil finds himself feeling a connection of sorts to the boy – a connection that mirrors the one he had with a long-ago mentor named Bronco Henry, though that dynamic too was fraught in ways that Phil refuses to articulate to himself, even as those feelings continue to grow within him. Phil has plenty of demons of his own, you see, and despite his best efforts, he can’t seem to find peace.

Every one of these people has shadows from which they struggle to escape, choices from their past that continue to ripple forward into the future. All are endangered, be it physically, emotionally, spiritually or some combination therein – and not all will emerge unscathed.

“The Power of the Dog” is one of those rare films that more than lives up to the hype that precedes it. I had been hearing about this film for months, so it seemed unlikely that it would be able to clear the extremely high bar that had been set.

Honestly, I should have known better.

The pieces are all here for something truly excellent. A brilliant auteur filmmaker responsible for both the script and the direction. An utterly stacked cast, packed with transcendent cinematic talent. A hauntingly beautiful setting, one that fills the screen with bleak beauty. All of it in service to a story that is somehow true to its historicity, very much of its time AND exceedingly prescient about the world to come – a story about love in all of its forms, as well as the damage that can be done by emotional wounds left unaddressed.

Campion is an absolute marvel and she puts all of her considerable abilities on full display here. The script is masterful, a collection of subtle and nuanced narrative moments and compelling dialogue. The visual moments she captures are astonishing: extended wide shots that accentuate both beauty and isolation, extended stretches of silence centered around unforgettable images, interpersonal interactions that say far more between the words than with them. It’s all here and it’s all amazing.

Benedict Cumberbatch has never been better than he is here. His Phil Burbank is a turbulent mass of contradictions, a Phi Beta Kappa frontiersman consumed (and trapped) by the life into which he was born. It is a treatise on masculinity gone wrong, arrogance and self-loathing coming together and collapsing in on themselves. Plemons is a perfect foil as the soft and generally agreeable George, capturing the energy that comes from the fundamental inferiority he feels alongside his brother, both as an intellectual and as a cowboy. It’s a phenomenal turn from Dunst as well, as fear and loneliness and grief and love jumble together within her, creating noise that only liquor can quiet. Smit-McPhee more than holds his own, creating an idiosyncratic character who elicits our empathy; we root for his personal revelations even as he ventures into some morally murky territory.

“The Power of the Dog” is a brilliant and haunting piece of filmmaking, a story about how every façade – no matter how tough – can crack under the weight of uninterrupted loneliness. It tells the tale of how we too often tear others down because we can’t stop tearing ourselves apart. These lives reflect the world in which they live – harsh but beautiful, unforgettable but unforgiving … exquisitely isolating.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 06 December 2021 10:57

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