The Power of the Dog (2021) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): A tense western drama by Jane Campion

Jane Campion’s new film “The Power of the Dog”, which was recently released in theaters in US and South Korea before released on Netflix early in next month, is a subtly tense and captivating mix of western drama and character study. As phlegmatically observing the nervous emotional undercurrents swirling between its edgy antisocial hero and several other characters who happen to be around him, the movie slowly grabs our attention scene by scene, and then it strikes us hard with the inevitable outcome of what has been developed so carefully and organically along the story.

Mainly set in a big ranch located somewhere in the middle of Montana, 1925, the movie initially focuses on the uneasy but mostly convenient relationship between two different brothers who have ran this ranch together for many years. While Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) is usually the one who handles those ranch employees, his younger brother Geroge (Jesse Plemons) is the one mostly tasked with assisting Phil or handling those small and big business matters of their ranch outside, and it is quite apparent to us from the beginning that Phil has dominated over his younger brother and the ranch employees as your average tough alpha male.

So far, George has not had any problem with living alone with his older brother in their big but mostly empty ranch house, but then he unexpectedly makes a sudden impulsive decision to Phil’s displeasure. When George has a meal along with Phil and their ranch employees at a nearby inn on one day, Phil happens to make a rather cruel remark on the sensitive young son of the owner of the inn, and the owner of the inn, a young widow named Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst) understandably feels hurt about that. As consoling her a bit later, George becomes fallen in love with Rose, and then they come to marry without telling anything to Phil in advance.

After selling her inn and then sending her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) to a college where he is going to study medicine and surgery, Rose happily enters the ranch house along with George, but it does not take much time for her to realize that she might have made a big mistake. Although George does love and care about Rose, he is often absent as handling those business matters of the ranch, and there is no one else in the ranch house except Phil and two housemaids. As the lady of the house, Rose often feels awkward when she tries to interact more friendly with these two housemaids, and she feels all the more uncomfortable because of Phil’s unspoken but palpable hostility toward her.

The middle act of the movie is often painful to watch as Rose gradually gets driven to more anxiety and desperation. At one point, she is virtually demanded to be the ideal hostess for a small social evening meeting, and she tries her best for satisfying her husband and several other guests including her parents-in-law, but, alas, she only finds herself quite humiliated in front of them to Phil’s twisted satisfaction.

Meanwhile, Peter returns from the school for spending some summer days in the ranch, and that somehow leads to more tension beneath the surface as Phil regards Peter with equal disdain and disregard. Due to his rather mild appearance and introverted attitude, Peter is often ridiculed by Phil as well as those ranch employees, and he surely feels quite miserable while also quietly angry about his mother’s continuing domestic predicament.

And then something quite unexpected is revealed around the midpoint of the story. I do not dare to go into details here, but I can tell you instead that you will come to reflect more on what the screenplay by Campion, which is adapted from Thomas Savage’s novel of the same name, has masterfully suggested and implied via small nuances and details. Although it does not spell out everything loud to us, Campion’s screenplay trusts in us to gather one subtle element after another along the narrative, and we accordingly come to understand its main characters more than expected, while also wondering more about what may happen among them in the end.

The movie quite commendable in its technical aspects. While the editing by Peter Sciberras is terse but effective with the slow but gradual accumulation of narrative momentum on the screen, cinematographer Ari Wegner serves us a number of strikingly unnerving landscape shots (The movie was actually shot in New Zealand, by the way), and their nervous ambience is further accentuated by the stark restrained score by Jonny Greenwood, who will probably be Oscar-nominated along with Sciberras and Wegner in next year.

Campion draws the strong performances from her main cast members. While Benedict Cumberbatch, who is incidentally no stranger to playing antisocial heroes, functions as the compelling dark human center of the film, Kirsten Dunst, Kodi Smit-McPhee, and Jesse Plemons are equally terrific in their respective roles, and Keith Carradine, Frances Conroy, Adam Beach, Genevieve Lemon, and Thomasin McKenzie are also well-cast in their small supporting parts.

In conclusion, “The Power of the Dog”, which won the Silver Lion for Best direction when it had the premiere at the Venice International Film Festival two months ago, may require some patience from you at the beginning, but it is an ultimately rewarding experience on the whole. In short, this is Campion’s another marvelous work which deserves to be mentioned along with “An Angel at My Table” (1990) and “The Piano” (1993), and I think you should watch it on big theater screen instead watching it at your home.

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