The Reel Review
Two brothers, wealthy cattle ranchers in 1925 Montana, find themselves at odds, when one of them, George, marries a widow with an effeminate son, enraging his woman-hating, homophobic brother, Phil. This romantic Western drama from Oscar-winning writer/director Jane Campion (The Piano) stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons, Kirsten Dunst and Kodi Smit-McPhee, and is based on Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel.
With New Zealand’s gorgeous South Island doubling for Montana, The Power of the Dog isn’t your typical Western. It is an art house film loaded with visual imagery, hidden agendas and shifting power dynamics, all while exploring the claustrophobia of sexual boundaries.
Cumberbatch delivers a career-defining performance as the rage-filled alpha male, quick to bully every individual in his path. He rarely bathes and is obsessed with his long-dead, older friend Bronco Henry. Plemons is the simpler, easygoing brother George, with an excellent Dunst as Rose, driven to drinking by Phil’s merciless taunting and filled with anxiety when Phil shows a sudden interest in her awkward son Peter, played to perfection by Smit-McPhee.
The film starts off very slowly – almost like a plot-free, character portrait. But once George and Rose marry, the suspense quickly escalates. Campion tells her story not only with dialogue, but with lyrical cinematography – closeups and facial expressions evoking near constant tension and dread. Only those paying close attention to the subtle cues will see the approaching finale – a thrilling, unpredictable battle of wits that will linger long after the credits roll.
• The Power of the Dog author Thomas Savage based his novel on his own experiences growing up as a closeted gay teenager on a ranch in Montana. He died in Virginia Beach, Virginia in 2003 at the age of 88.
• Real life couple Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons also played a married couple in season two of the TV series Fargo. They have two sons together.
• Benedict Cumberbatch went full-on Method for the role, not speaking with Dunst during production and learning to play the banjo and castrate bulls. He also skipped bathing so he could constantly wear the stink of his character Phil during filming. Normally a non-smoker, Cumberbatch even gave himself nicotine poisoning three times from smoking so much on set.