Review: Four People’s Lives Are Inextricably, Devastatingly Linked in Somber, Sweeping The Power of the Dog

Jane Campion hasn’t made a feature film since 2009’s exceptional Bright Star, an ethereal and heartbreaking tale of poet John Keats and the woman he loved in the final years of his life. Her return to the big screen (in between, she wrote and directed the impressive murder mystery limited series “Top of the Lake”) is no less triumphant, the sweeping and poignant The Power of the Dog, the sort of film that reminds us what’s possible when a visionary filmmaker with a polished script works with craftspeople and actors all at the top of their game. Based on a novel by Thomas Savage, the film follows individuals tied together through family and marriage, as well as the sprawling ranch they all live and work on.

The Power of the Dog
Image credit Kirsty Griffin; courtesy of Netflix.

Benedict Cumberbatch is Phil Burbank, a rough and charismatically cruel Montana rancher who manages his men and his livestock through as much wit as insults. He’s gruff, a man of few—but powerful—words, and he manages life on the ranch while his softer-spoken brother, George (Jesse Plemons) tends to the business side of things. Where Phil hardly knows what a clean bath is, George is always impeccably dressed and welcome in polite society. Their lives are fairly predictable until George, seeking to settle his own legacy and build a family, marries Rose (Kirsten Dunst, and Plemon’s real-life spouse), owner of a restaurant, and gets her teenage son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) in the bargain. Still mourning the loss of his father, Peter wants nothing more than his mother’s happiness, even if he and George aren’t exactly destined for a father/son bond. These four individuals couldn’t be more different, and yet their lives will become so inextricably linked that one’s secrets become the others, one’s traumas are felt by them all.

There is an immediate tension between Rose and Phil; she finds him rude, intimidating and even slightly scary, while his reception of her is as cool as they come, often downright unpleasant about her and Peter’s entry into their otherwise predictable lives. George tries valiantly, if fruitlessly, to bridge the gaps and mend the bonds, but to no avail. A particularly painful visit from Phil and George’s parents puts all this dysfunction into sharp focus, Rose doing her best to impress her new in-laws while Phil does his best to sabotage the entire evening. The most curious of these bonds, though, is between Phil and Peter. Initially as antagonistic with Peter as he is Rose, Peter endears himself to the rancher when he’s home from college one summer and the two spend more time around the ranch together. Though in appearance and manners Peter may seem to have more in common with genteel George, it’s Phil who he gravitates towards, recognizing on some level an inexplicable familiarity with the man.

Campion’s gifted filmmaking has always centered around her ability to give her characters the space they need to be themselves and the stories that unfold from there. Perhaps it’s the wide open Montana vistas in The Power of the Dog or the incredible performances by each of these four talented actors (this coming from a Cumberbatch detractor, no less); either way, these characters are so gorgeously realized as individuals that it makes their shared dynamics all the more powerful. As Rose struggles with her own newly surfacing demons, Phil is trying desperately to hide his own. Peter grows bolder in his own skin, becoming more curious about the world around him and confident in his own power in it. George endeavors to understand all that’s spinning around him as the world he once new is suddenly as foreign to him as Phil’s rough and tumble life with the herd. If half the magic in Campion’s filmmaking is her incredible ability to build a sense of place, the other half certainly lies in her uncanny talent for drawing fully realized and sympathetic characters.

As the arcs of these four characters come careening together (albeit at the slow, thoughtful pace of a film in no hurry to rush the proceedings), Campion takes care not to hit us over the head with their inevitable fates, even if we can see them coming a mile away. It’s not that the film is predictable; it’s that on this isolated ranch where their lives are so intertwined with, if not altogether dependent on, each other, there’s really no other way all this could go. Each of these characters is too crisply defined to do anything other than what they do. The film’s conclusion, then, is a satisfying one, though not by any definition a happy one. In other words, Campion has done it again.

The Power of the Dog is now in select theaters and streaming on Netflix.

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Lisa Trifone
Lisa Trifone
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