One thing is certain, that The Power Of The Dog is the most gorgeous-looking Western set in the early 20th century since Days Of Heaven 43 years ago. What’s also clear is that Jane Campion has made a complex and probing adaptation of the late Thomas Savage’s superb 1967 novel about two very different Montana rancher brothers caught in a twisted emotional bind. The film has its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival today, and although by rights it should be seen on the big screen, where it will debut on November 17, this turbulent yet intricately nuanced work will be most widely seen on Netflix, beginning December 1.
Sibling rivalry dates back to Cain and Abel, and this primal relationship will presumably never fail to deliver intense drama. All the same, Savage, who was drawn to writing about society’s outsiders, managed to fashion some fresh twists on the subject, beginning with the fact that the Burbank brothers have slept in the same bedroom for 40 years. Physically and temperamentally, however, they could not be more distinct: Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) is brilliant, nasty, domineering, physically adept and madly homophobic, while the younger George (Jesse Plemons) is complacent, retiring, undistinguished, incurious and a seemingly sexless homebody. He’s also probably the only man in town who doesn’t drink.
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One problem at the outset is accepting Phil and George as biological brothers, in that Cumberbatch and Plemons could scarcely be more different physically; the former is tall, lean, vital, dark-haired and physically as well as intellectually prepossessing, while the latter is shorter, pudgy, blond, notably unathletic and incurious. Beyond that, Phil is manipulative to the nth degree and for his part, the mild-mannered George is a retiring sort with virtually nothing to say about anything. “It feels like it pains you to put two words together,” Phil jabs George early on, in a way that somewhat strains credulity that they could come from the same parents.
But what claims one’s attention at the outset aren’t the character shadings so much as the detailing of the time and place. With New Zealand magnificently filling in for Montana (the film commenced shooting pre-Covid and was later suspended for four months before starting up again), what’s striking are the home-wrought look and feel of the buildings, dining rooms and bars that you can almost smell, the luxury automobiles that rich folks have started bringing in from the East that clash so sharply with the left-over horse-and-buggy conveyances, the feel that civilization is moving ahead rapidly on one track while the old ways chug along on another, the impulse to stick with Western tradition and cowboy ways being severely challenged by the onrushing roaring twenties. (Did anyone know there were hula-hoops in Montana a century ago?) This dichotomy has rarely been noted, much less dramatized, so these scenes carry with them a fresh perspective on life a century ago.
To general surprise, then, George shortly announces that he’s going to marry Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), a reserved woman whom the locals meanly dub a “suicide widow.” She now runs the hotel and restaurant in town and has a maladroit son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a gawky lad who never fails to put a foot wrong. Led by the ignited Phil, the rough men in town make merciless sport of this hapless fellow, who wouldn’t seem to stand a chance with this rowdy crowd.
But there are turbulent currents running underground here, which Savage masterfully conveyed on the page and to which Campion pays strict if not quite comprehensive attention. After George confides in his brother as to “how nice it is not to be alone,” Phil becomes unhinged upon hearing bedroom intimacies between the newlyweds through the wall, which ramps up curiosity about what’s eating at Phil and why.
Phil’s pent-up frustration and rage increasingly take front-and-center attention; what’s wrong with him, why does he react so violently to the idea of intimacy, why is such a smart man so tremendously uncivilized at times and how might he actually want his little fiefdom to function? Seeming to take the kid under his wing at one point, Phil warns him, “Don’t let your mom make a sissy out of you.” Phil is a singular and quite possibly unique figure in the literature of the American West, especially when you begin reading between the lines of his ostentatious homophobia, his deliberate provocations and bathing naked in the river.
Certainly there are skeletons in Phil’s closet he refuses to acknowledge and/or is adamant to reject, just as there are desires and impulses he shamelessly exhibits. Charismatic and uniquely complicated, he’s seems uniquely situated at the center of a major film, and Cumberbatch gives him his due with an arresting, quicksilver performance that far from anything he’s ever done.
And yet there are moments when the storytelling seems to go a bit off-track, where things don’t quite jell or aren’t providing what you need or want in the wake of what’s come before. And apart from Phil, whose character profile is scarcely complete, the other principal characters aren’t exceptionally dimensional, although they do pop and echo from time to time in effective ways. As unusual as these individuals are, it feels that we’re only getting slivers and bits of them; Phil cuts such a wide swath that there’s not enough space in the room — or even in the great outdoors — for the others to spread their wings very far.
But this is a serious, ambitious, living and breathing work, a film that sticks in the mind, ignites a mix of feelings that you can stew about for days and makes you want to examine it in the light from different angles. There aren’t many films these days that can claim that kind of attention on the viewer.