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‘The Power of the Dog’ – a semi-mythic Western movie

Scene from "The Power of the Dog"

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

In many ways, Jane Campion’s new movie, “The Power of the Dog,” is like a psychological Western from the 1950s. If it had been made back then, it might have starred Kirk Douglas (in full curled-lip mode) and a quivery Anthony Perkins.

Instead, we have Benedict Cumberbatch – part Marlboro Man, part mean ol’ cuss – as Phil Burbank and Kodi Smith-McPhee as Peter, his, um, artistic new step-nephew.

The year is 1925, and the setting is the Big Sky country of Montana. Back East, F. Scott Fitzgerald has just finished “The Great Gatsby,” but out west, the frontier and flappers co-exist.

Phil and his genial brother George (Jesse Plemons) run a huge cattle ranch where men are men, and Peter is, well, out of place. He’s also new to the place.

Movie poster for “The Power of the Dog”

George has just married Peter’s mother, a comely widow named Rose (Kirsten Dunst), and Phil isn’t happy about it. Not only does she threaten his relationship with George, but he thinks she’s a “cheap schemer.”

What Phil refuses to see are two lonely people who have found a kind of happiness together – a happiness that his relentless macho opposition threatens. No wonder Rose soon becomes a secret alcoholic, stashing bottles all over the sizable ranch house.

But Phil has a secret, too, the revelation of which profoundly alters our perception of him and his reasons for behaving as he does. Especially towards Peter.

As a director, Campion is one hard-headed woman. Her films (“The Piano,” “Sweetie,” “Bright Star”) can be stubbornly obtuse, demanding we adjust to them and refusing to meet an audience even halfway. Here, she sacrifices emotional involvement and psychological complexity for a kind of semi-mythic Western pastiche.

Fortunately, she’s such a powerful filmmaker that it’s easy to give in and go with her vision. “The Power of the Dog” – its title is taken from Psalm 22 – wants us to look at the manly trappings of the Old West in a new way. Sure, the cowboys still keep busy ridin’ and ropin’ and cattle brandin’. At one point, Phil asserts his Alpha male status by apparently castrating a young bull with his bare hands.

However, it’s the 1920s. The West is in transition. There are cars as well as horses on the dusty streets of the nearby town. When the governor and his wife come for dinner, they’re served on good china and the family crystal.

Scene from “The Power of the Dog”

Campion is fascinated by this culture clash and uses it as an ever-present backdrop for the similar clash between Phil and Peter (their first encounter, when Peter serves lunch to Phil and the boys at his mom’s restaurant, clearly echoes an iconic scene between Jimmy Stewart and Lee Marvin in John Ford’s classic, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.”)

Much is being made of Cumberbatch’s performance, but in many ways, Campion hands the movie to him. And being the charismatic actor that he is, he graciously takes it – and may take home an Oscar. But the supporting cast is essential to his portrayal, as are the monumental vistas (New Zealand subs for Montana).

“The Power of the Dog” has an elemental grandeur more suited to its setting than its psychology. But that’s the sort of filmmaker Campion is. A master of mood and manipulation, she demands we see the forest and the trees.

“The Power of the Dog” is in theaters, and it is available for viewing on Netflix.

Eleanor Ringel

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.


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