Kasey Dunifer: The Power of the Dog
THE POWER OF THE DOG – Review/Analysis
After more than a decade’s long break from feature filmmaking, Jane Campion returns in full force with her unconventional Western, “The Power of the Dog,” an adaptation of the 1967 novel of the same name by Thomas Savage. A master of period pieces (her most notable being the 1993 film, “The Piano”), Campion reminds us of the eloquent heartbreak of her craft, this time in 1925’s rural Montana.
The film follows a rough-around-the-edges rancher, Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch), and his more reserved brother, George (Jesse Plemons). When George marries a timid widow, Rose (Kirsten Dunst), who radiates a constant air of subtle sadness, she and her eccentric son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) move into the Burbank estate, much to the chagrin of Phil. Through different points of view, we see the internal struggles of each character as they grapple with a cornucopia of conflicts—familial drama, internalized homophobia, trauma, grief, alcoholism, and more. Unlike its uncomfortably still scenery, “The Power of the Dog” is an ebb and flow of constantly-shifting dynamics between its four main characters: Phil, George, Rose, and Peter.
I. PHIL & GEORGE: The Cat & Mouse
From the beginning of the film, we see Phil’s ferocious need for control. George was cut from a softer cloth, a delicate linen (and Phil, soiled burlap). Phil is so obviously damaged, his only way of showing affection for the one person he loves, the one he endearingly refers to as “fatso,” is by trying to keep tabs on him at all times. George, however, is constantly sneaking away from Phil, like a little barn mouse from a cat, hoping to escape his brother’s overly-perceptive gaze. George seeks out a safe corner to offer some comfort in his lonely life. When he finally finds that comfort, tensions rise between George and Phil.
II. ROSE & PETER: An Unspoken Bond
Simultaneously, the beginning of the film follows the relationship of Rose and Peter. There’s a quiet understanding between Rose and her son—she knows he is a bit different than other boys (as he makes paper flowers and dissects rabbits) and he knows the depths of her heartache. After his father committed suicide four years ago, Peter becomes devoted to his mother’s happiness. By the end of the film, we finally realize just how much Rose means to Peter.
III. ROSE & GEORGE: Lonely Together
After a hard day’s work, Phil, his brother and their ranchers dine in a saloon. This early scene is one of the few with all four characters interacting together. Phil ridicules everyone, George apologizes for him, Rose protects her son, and Peter begins to plot his revenge. While apologizing, George is smitten by Rose and they are soon married.
Real life lovers, Dunst and Plemons, eloquently embody the simplicity and quiet sadness of the provincial people of the 1920s. Naturally isolating circumstances bring the two together in a profoundly melancholic, yet effortless, way. In one breathtaking, Campion-esque scene, the newlyweds silently dance against the backdrop of the mountainside. In awe of the power of companionship, George sheds a single tear—something the hardened Phil would undoubtedly ridicule—and admits to Rose, “how nice it is not to be alone.”
IV. PHIL & ROSE: The Cat & Fiddle
When Rose moves into the Burbank estate, and enters Phil’s bubble of toxicity, the film takes a darker turn. Phil’s dizzying jealousy of his brother, who had the audacity to find a woman he loved, marry her, and bring her into their home–something he could never–propels him into a maddening spiral. Like his banjo, Phil plucks on the strings of Rose’s insecurities until she becomes completely out of tune. With George out on the ranch, her son away at school, and her usual cleaning duties taken up by housemaids, Rose finds her comfort at the bottom of a bottle.
Rose used to never drink, citing how her late husband was an alcoholic. She also used to be very clean. When we first meet Rose, she is sweeping. She is so concerned with cleanliness, she says she would loathe living in a big mansion because it would be “too much to clean.” As Phil’s psychological hold on Rose increases, she continues to decline further into filth and drunkenness. When Rose’s son, Peter, comes home from school to the Burbank ranch, Phil moves on to his next target.
V. PHIL & PETER: A Dark Horse
As Phil abandons his first intentions of bullying Peter, he decides to take him under his wing, knowing it will drive Rose further into madness. However, Phil underestimates Peter. At times, Phil and Peter are a lot alike. They are two men (or one almost a man) who don’t fit in. They are both dealing with old wounds—Phil with the death of his former lover, Bronco Henry (and all the repressed sexuality and internalized homophobia that came with it)—and Peter with the death of his father, who hung himself with a rope four years ago (and all the corresponding guilt and grief hanging over his and his mother’s heads).
The characters’ key difference is how they treat their wounds. Like a dog, Phil licks at his wounds incessantly by constantly revisiting his keepsakes of Bronco Henry. The aseptic Peter treats his wounds with cleanliness, care, and calculation. This idea of filth and cleanliness is carried throughout the film in several ways. In one surely suggestive shot, we see Peter snapping on a latex-like glove before dissecting an infected cow. Phil, on the other hand, can be found castrating bulls with a knife he then carries in his mouth.
Phil sees a reflection of himself in Peter and, as most trauma survivors do, seeks to recreate a familiar situation. Phil is so desperate for companionship, he’s willing to continue a cycle of potential abuse. However, Peter, more cunning that anyone gives him credit for, has plans of his own.
Phil and Peter are two of the most complex characters to grace our Netflix screens. The enigmatic Benedict Cumberbatch and his mini-me, Kodi Smit-McPhee, are two serious contenders for this year’s Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor awards, respectively.
IN THE END: A Rope Isn’t Just a Rope
There’s danger in the details. Sweeping landscapes of mountains, cliffs, and deserts make for beautiful cinematography but the real magic of the film is conjured within the subtle, yet extreme close-up shots of seemingly safe objects. There is a recurring close-up of Phil’s hands caressing a saddle. This shot reveals to us just how broken and damaged he is. This saddle, belonging to Bronco Henry, is the only thing Phil keeps clean, as he tries to erase the part of him he can’t show to anyone, not even himself.
Another shot is the strangely disturbing close-up of Peter’s comb. It can be seen as a literal interpretation of Phil’s attempts to groom Peter; but there is also something slightly menacing about the way Peter runs his finger over the teeth of the comb, as if he is sharpening them, preparing to bite. The sound of his finger on the comb drives Rose mad—perhaps, because, deep down, she knows what her son is capable of. In these acute details, we learn that a saddle isn’t just a saddle, a comb isn’t just a comb and, in the end, a rope isn’t just a rope.
In all its ambiguity, if there’s anything certain about “The Power of the Dog,” it’s its nuanced performances, breathtaking cinematography, and evidence to the fact that Jane Campion remains a force to be reckoned with.