“Deliver my soul from the sword.
My love from the power of the dog”
(Psalms, 22:20, David’s address to God to free him from his foes)
Year 1925, Montana. Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Burbank (Jesse Plemons) are the owners of one of the biggest ranches of the state. They’re wealthy, powerful, they’re fully in charge of their own lives. They’re also wildly different brothers: Phil is smart, charismatic, but also despotic and snarky; George is calm, introverted, gentle and sensitive. They have learned to lead their lives independently: Phil oversees the cattle, the technical operations at the ranch, devoted to the teachings impaired to him by his mentor Bronco Henry, while George is the financial administrator and the one in charge with public relations to the most important people in Montana, including the Governor. Their lives start to change when George decides to marry Rose (Kirsten Dunst), the owner of a restaurant whose son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) was cruelly bullied by Phil and targeted with homophobic slurs and snarky comments. The arrival of Rose into the Burbank household upsets Phil, who decides to wage war on Rose, using everything in his power to make her life miserable.
Based on Thomas Savage’s 1967 masterpiece, The Power of The Dog is Jane Campion’s first film in over 10 years. After years spent on tv, specifically with the show Top of the Lake, she chose The Power of The Dog as her new film project, and it perfectly fits her already impressive résumé. Like Savage’s novel, Ms. Campion’s film is meticulous, deeply atmospheric, sinister, and disturbing. Gorgeously shot by Ari Wegner and impeccably scored by Jonny Greenwood, the film feels like a volcano that is only seemingly quiet but that is in fact undergoing intense underground activity, giving the story of the Burbank family a feel that is epic and intimate at the same time. As usual with Ms. Campion, The Power of The Dog is a film that requires patience and a high degree of attention from the viewer, patience that will be rewarded even more on repeated viewings. It is a movie that absorbs and needs to be absorbed in all its psychological complexity, in its arresting visuals, in its rich frame composition.
I wouldn’t be fair if I didn’t mention the great cast that makes these characters alive. Benedict Cumberbatch, whose casting was welcome with deep perplexity, is stellar as Phil Burbank, in a performance that deserves attention during the upcoming awards season: his Phil is malicious, ferocious, salacious, he’s loud and aggressive, guarding his territory like Cerberus, the three-headed dog, but he’s also deeply insecure, repressed, and emotionally castrated. Kodi Smit-McPhee, whose role becomes central during the last act of the film, is the other standout: sweet, delicate, and sensitive, he gives Peter a profoundly magnetic presence, engaging in a spectacular acting duel with Cumberbatch. Kirsten Dunst is another perfect addition to the cast as Rose, a vulnerable woman who tries to regain control of her life after a terrible trauma only to find herself at war in her own house, while Jesse Plemons is as always reliable as George, the calm, good-natured George.
Rich, thoughtful, visually and narratively compelling, The Power of The Dog proves once again why Jane Campion is one of the most interesting and respected filmmakers of our time.
This review is from the 2021 Venice Film Festival.