THE POWER OF THE DOG (2021) – Thinking Person’s Western Tackles Themes of Repressed Homosexuality and Loneliness

Back-to-back weeks of Benedict Cumberbatch movies.

Life is good.

Last week I reviewed Cumberbatch in THE ELECTRICAL LIFE OF LOUIS WAIN (2021). Today, he’s starring in Netflix’ THE POWER OF THE DOG (2021).

THE POWER OF THE DOG is a thinking person’s movie.

In 1925 Montana, ranchers Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his brother George (Jesse Plemons) with their cowhands visit an eatery run by a widower Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst) and her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). In the quiet of his room, Peter has made some exquisite paper flowers which his mom decides to use as table decorations. When Phil notices them, he remarks that he’d like to meet the woman who made such flowers, and when Peter says that he made them, the admission irks Phil and he proceeds to be rude and mocking to the boy, so much so, that by night’s end, Peter is trembling, and Rose is in tears.

The next day when George returns to settle the bill, he reaches out to Rose, and soon he’s helping her around the place, and it’s not long after that they get married, a decision which annoys George’s brother Phil, who is alone and looks to his brother for companionship. Loneliness is certainly a theme here. Shortly after they are married, George says to Rose straight out, “I just want to say… how nice it is not to be alone.”

But Phil is alone, and he takes out his frustrations mocking and upsetting Rose and her son Peter every chance he gets. So when he decides seemingly out of the blue to make amends with Peter and form a bond with him, his motives are certainly questionable. And it’s really here that the movie becomes a thinking person’s movie, and it’s also here where I will stop talking about the plot.

The genius of THE POWER OF THE DOG, directed and written by Jane Campion, based on the novel by Thomas Savage, is that the film makes Phil the main character, and the audience largely sees the proceedings through his eyes, and as such, fears what he is capable of doing. But there is more going on here and Campion sneaks it all in, getting things past even the most careful of viewers. Again, the less said about the plot the better, but things aren’t always as they seem.

The theme of repressed homosexuality drives the plot forward. It is at the forefront of the audience’s mind as Phil grows closer to Peter, but once more, there is more going on here.

And while I enjoyed all this, I can’t say I loved this movie. It’s certainly thought-provoking, but it’s also seriously slow-paced, with characters who are often difficult to understand or warm up to, and so its two hours plus running time was often for me anyway labored viewing. I found the whole thing all rather cold.

The best part about it is that it’s not at all what one would expect from this type of story. Early on, it’s easy to think that Phil is going to be this sadistic predator, but he is much more complicated and human than that. This is not an action movie, a film where people achieve their goals through vivid acts of violence, a la a lot of movie westerns. Everything that happens here is calculated and subtle, so subtle you barely see it happening.

Benedict Cumberbatch is cast against type as a hardened western rancher, but he is no less convincing than he always is. As Phil, he is a complicated dark character who knows he is smarter than most and takes pride in the fact that he is a rancher, albeit a rancher with some serious personal demons.

He’s joined by three other outstanding actors who give equally effective performances. Jesse Plemons as George Burbank is practically subtlety personified. At one point Phil tells him it’s almost as if it pains him to say more than one word at a time!

Kirsten Dunst is excellent as Rose Gordon, the woman who surprisingly marries George and then finds herself turning to alcohol to help her cope with his brother Phil.

And in probably the most subtle performance of all, Kodi Smit-McPhee is outstanding as Peter, the character who towards the end of the film appears to be on the verge of being set up as the victim. But appearances here can be deceiving.

Careful viewers can learn all they need to know about the direction of the plot in the opening moments of the film, with a few words from Peter’s voice over narration.

The film’s title, THE POWER OF THE DOG, comes from a Biblical verse, and its meaning also sheds light on what is really happening in the plot of this one.

THE POWER OF THE DOG is by no means a fun movie to watch. It’s not the kind of film you want to see surrounded by friends and lots of popcorn. It is the kind of movie you want to view in quiet surroundings so you can pay attention to everything that is going on.

The film is a study of what people do out of loneliness, and out of devotion to those they love, as well as being a tale of what happens to even the most cautious of people when they let their guard down in the hopes of ending such loneliness.

—END—

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