The Power of the Dog (2021)

Jane Campion’s interpretation of Thomas Savage’s 1967 – which had defied adaptation for decades prior to this release – doesn’t have a great deal of power, and its recent dominance in the movie awards realm suggests a deficit of competitive excellence in the 2021 film slate rather than a surplus amount of brilliance in this particular work.

Set in 1925 Montana, the film focuses on middle-aged bachelor brothers Phil and George Burbank, who operate their family’s cattle ranch. Phil (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) is a lean, leathery character who prefers the company of his ranch hands – all of whom could pass for contemporary male models – and derides his stocky brother as “fatso” and reminds him that he was “too dumb to finish college.” (We learn in passing that Phil was Yale educated, although why he traded in the Ivy League for Big Sky Country is not clear.)

George (Jessie Plemons) is considerably quieter and not as prominent in the ranch’s daily hard work. His emotional state is initially hard to decipher, but he eventually makes his needs known when he shocks Phil by marrying Rose, a widow (Kristen Dunst) who ran an inn where the ranchers stopped to eat during a cattle drive. Rose has a teenage son named Peter (Australian actor Kodi Smit-McPhee) who is a medical school student. Phil’s abusive personality quickly drives Rose into alcoholism and he tries to denigrate Peter as gay based on his lithe appearance. The film initially gives the impression that Peter is a bit fey based on his ability to make delicate paper flowers, but Peter ultimately proves to everyone that he is not a force to ridicule.

In bringing Savage’s work to the screen, Campion took a few significant liberties with the source material – most notably in presenting the book’s celebrated surprise ending in a manner that is far more oblique than Savage’s straightforward explanation. (There are already several articles online explaining to viewers what transpires on-screen.)

The film also rewrites Savage’s vague hints over Phil’s sexuality. Some parts of the film feel like tributes to classic queer cinema: Phil’s pining over the late Bronco Henry, a cowboy mentor-friend of his youth, comes across as being a Western facsimile of Brick’s brooding over his dead friend Skipper in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” Also, an agitated Phil reacts to his brother’s marriage by thrashing his horse in a scene in a near-identical manner to Marlon Brando’s self-loathing closeted character in “Reflections in a Golden Eye.”

Campion cut out a passage of Savage’s book where Phil goes into an anti-Semitic diatribe regarding a Jewish peddler – that would have been too obnoxious for today’s viewers – but she invents a scene where an emboldened Peter quizzes Phil over his relation with Bronco Henry, including a straightforward question on whether the men slept naked together during a storm. Phil smiles but doesn’t answer, whereas Peter lights a cigarette and shares it with Phil in a lascivious manner that leaves nothing to the imagination.

And that’s where Campion’s film disappoints: nothing is left to the imagination. Excluding the gay edges and Savage’s surprise ending, the film is as predictable as a Republic Pictures B-Western, complete with black-hatted Phil and white-hatted Peter in a duel for the soul of the ranch.

As Phil, Cumberbatch behaves less like a Montana rancher in the 1920s and more like an actor trying to win an Oscar. He gets in a few screaming scenes, smokes cigarettes with dramatic panache, snarls like a sawdust villain and even provides a few shots of his naked body (back to the camera, of course) in a lake swimming scene. To his credit, he does a credible American accent – but, really, weren’t there any American actors available for this part?

More interesting is Smit-McPhee, who is initially framed as the stereotypical sensitive youth before his true colors are unexpectedly revealed. Tall, thin and stoic, Smit-McPhee internalizes Peter’s machinations the way that Cumberbatch externalizes Phil’s – and he gives the stronger performance of the two.

Plemons’ George brings little to the film and he is conspicuously absent from most of the film’s second half, whereas Dunst’s Rose follows in a long tradition of leading ladies who detour into an obligatory role as a tragic but beautiful alcoholic.

Campion shot this Montana-based epic in New Zealand, and the film was co-financed by the New Zealand Film Commission – if anyone connected with the film wins an Academy Award, hopefully Kiwi taxpayers will be thanked in their acceptance speech.