Growing up in the early ’50s and ’60s, I watched lots of westerns from The Lone Ranger to Hopalong Cassidy to Rawhide, so when I saw that Netflix was featuring a western film with Benedict Cumberbatch, I knew I had to watch. Saddle up for my thoughts on The Power of the Dog.
Plot (with spoilers)
The Power of the Dog is a beautiful but dark film about two wealthy ranch owners surviving in 1925 Montana. Directed by Jane Campion and based on the 1967 novel of the same name, the film features an amazing cast which includes Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, and Kodi Smit-McPhee. The filming was done mostly in rural Otago, located in the southern half of New Zealand.
The film is a true western where cowboys herd cattle and then spend their hard-earned cash on loose women and hard liquor. Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a well-educated man, with dark secrets and a bad disposition, while his brother, George (Jesse Plemons) is a gentle, but lonely man. Phil is constantly putting his brother down even though you know that deep down, Phil cares for George. The need for companionship outside of the daily routine of ranching is so strong in George that is no surprise when he falls instantly in love with Rose (Kirsten Dunst) when the Burbanks and their crew stop in a neighbouring town for food and drinks. The romantic scenes between Kirsten’s Rose and Jesse’s George are believable and that might be due to the fact that they are married to each other in real life.
Phil is surprised when George not only marries Rose, but also sends her son Peter to college to study medicine and surgery. Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a strange duck. He likes to perform surgery on animals, he is way too quiet, a bit effeminate, and he makes Phil uneasy, so Phil goes out of his way to torment the boy and his mother.
Ever since watching Benedict Cumberbatch in the TV Series, Sherlock, I have been following him, and I can truly say that besides Sherlock and even with the many films that Cumberbatch starred in…The Power of the Dog might be his best work. His Phil is always talking about his mentor Bronco Henry. Everything that Phil learned about being a cowboy, he learned from Bronco Henry. It isn’t until later that we learn there was so much more going on between Phil and Henry.
There is a mean side to Phil, and his anger is not only reserved for poor Rose and Peter, as we witness in one scene when Phil on learning about George’s marriage, takes his anger out on his horse. The only time we see Phil smile is when he is either looking at the mountain range or torturing his brother’s wife.
Rose, feeling isolated after Peter goes to school, and under constant ridicule from Phil, takes up drinking. Even when George buys Rose a piano, Phil never gives up on the harassment. Rose has done nothing to incur this hatred. When Peter returns to the ranch during school break, he quietly observes the interactions between Rose and Phil.
As hostile as Phil is in the film, Peter is so much scarier because of his mild demeanor. Peter is well aware of Phil’s and the ranch hands taunts, but he ignores them. He spends his time dissecting animals in his room, or he goes off on long walks by himself. It is during one of these walks that he not only catches a glimpse of Phil swimming nude in a pond, but he has found Phil’s secret cache of magazines depicting nude men.
Why Phil decides to take Peter under his wing, is never mentioned, but we get the feeling that this friendship serves a purpose: to antagonize Rose. Seeing that his taking the boy under his wing causes Rose to drink even more, Phil decides to teach Peter the fine art of lasso making. Phil even teaches Peter to ride a horse. One day while riding up in the mountains, Peter comes across a dead animal that may have died from anthrax. Peter cuts some of the hide off the animal, and we think nothing about it.
Cumberbatch’s character is constantly proving his manhood to everyone he comes into contact with, which might explain his need for dominance, his sharp tongue, and his need to belittle people. There is nothing likeable about Cumberbatch’s character…and yet…because of Cumberbatch’s superb acting, when we learn about the relationship between Phil and Bronco Henry, we understand Phil’s anger. Phil is an oddity in the time period that he lives in. Was he hoping to find love with Peter? In a rare show of kindness, Phil begins making a lasso for Peter, but accepts the dried hide that Peter cut from the dead cow. Soon after that…Phil takes ill and, soon passes away. We don’t suspect the cause until the very end.
After the funeral, Peter reads Psalm 22:20 “Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog. It is then that we realize how protective Peter is of his mother.
I am going to watch this film again, then I will buy the book. This is a must watch film. Cumberbatch is at his best in this western, but it is the scenes leading up to the funeral that hints at the macabre planning of Peter’s revenge.
The Power of the Dog is on Netflix