The Power of the Dog is the story of two brothers. Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Burbank (Jesse Plemons) are wealthy cattle ranchers who could not be more different in personality. George is kind and compassionate, Phil is a real SOB, and proud of it. One of them is also not entirely what he seems. That is one of just many unexpected moments in the film, which is based on the novel by Thomas Savage. Director Jane Campion (The Piano) quietly, subtly develops the Burbank brothers and two other prominent characters – sometimes in ways we don't even initially realize -- so that by the end, we can feel how the story's events have transformed them powerfully.
The year is 1925. While on their way to market one day, the siblings stop at a restaurant, where they meet Rose (Kirsten Dunst), the widowed owner. Her college-age son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) works as a waiter. Thanks to his lisp and effeminate manner, Phil immediately begins mocking him. This causes Rose to cry, leading George to comfort her. They become married soon after, to Phil's consternation. He doesn't want Rose living in the massive family estate they share, and he definitely doesn't want Peter around.
That's the very basic set-up to The Power of the Dog. There is much more to the film, most of it best left unrevealed here. Essentially, two of these characters possess secrets. One feels shame over it, the other has a fear of how their status will be affected should it become public. Part of what makes the movie riveting is that the eventual revelation of these secrets forces us to reinterpret everything we've already seen. Elements that seemed black-and-white at the beginning become more gray by the middle. Even better, the movie carefully weaves these secrets together, building toward a haunting climax. The final shot leaves you with a number of moral issues to ponder.
The movie's title comes from the Bible. Psalm 20:22 reads, “Deliver my soul from the sword, My darling from the power of the dog.” Phil is definitely the dog. He's the kind of guy who sucks all the air out of the room. Even if he's not speaking, his presence commands any environment he enters. One of the film's best scenes finds Rose practicing the piano and stumbling over the song. Phil, upstairs, intimidates her by playing the same song on his banjo, much better than she's playing it. Cruelty is his specialty, and watching how everyone else responds to that is what drives the drama.
Campion, who also wrote the screenplay, uses dialogue economically. No one launches into soliloquies or makes grand speeches. Many of the shots she achieves are majestic, set against the backdrop of the West. But the intimate ones make an even bigger impact. Take, for example, the scene in which we get an important piece of information regarding Phil's past. It's wordless. The camera simply lingers on Phil as he manipulates a particular object. Cumberbatch is riveting in the sequence, using facial expressions and the way he physically plays with that object to infer all kinds of confidential details we never would have gleaned otherwise.
The actor is superb throughout, as are his co-stars. Plemons radiates decency as George, and Dunst brings palpable sorrow to Rose. Kodi Smit-McPhee, meanwhile, plays a character who could have come off as a stereotype. He deftly avoids the clichés, turning Peter into a gentle soul who nevertheless has been – and continues to be – affected by the devastating events taking place around him. All four main actors have been perfectly cast, allowing Campion to take her observational approach. She knows they're capable of the emotional heavy lifting.
The Power of the Dog works so beautifully because it's incisive about human behavior. How the main characters interact and what they do privately tells us everything we need to know. There is one very big, major event that occurs in the last few minutes. Campion doesn't even show it, she just shows the aftermath. We don't need to see the act, because the circumstances that led to it are crystal clear already. That's great filmmaking, and this is a magnificent work.
out of four
The Power of the Dog is rated R for brief sexual content/full nudity.. The running time is 2 hours and 6 minutes.