May 26, 2022 | Rome, Italy

The Power of the Dog

By | 2022-02-20T18:12:17+01:00 January 23rd, 2022|Film, Reviews|

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Date: 2021

Director: Jane Campion

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons, Kirsten Dunst, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Thomasin McKenzie, Genevieve Lemon, Cohen Holloway, Keith Carradine

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cowpoke’s life on the American prairie can be punishing — unforgiving. However, attempting to rebuke the rest of the world for that is a completely different story.

This one, based on a novel by Thomas Savage, takes place in 1925 Montana, on a ranch conspicuously situated in a valley surrounded by foreboding mountains intimating histories and secrets that only few can witness.

Phil Burbank (Cumberbatch) certainly has something to share. But the Harvard educated rancher hides amongst his cadre of hired hands with whom he remains steadfast in refusing to surrender traditional cattleman ways any time soon.

Phil’s brother George (Plemons), his complete opposite, increasingly rejects that anachronistic way of living. He owns a car, bathes regularly, and tries hard to increase his social standing. George impetuously marries recently widowed Rose (Dunst), mother to the sensitive, spindly teenager, Peter (Smit-McPhee). An early voiceover informs us that Peter, who earlier discovered his father’s body (his father having killed himself), has vowed to protect, or more figuratively, save his mother from anyone posing a threat.

When Rose and Peter move into the Burbank house they are welcomed by Phil’s rudeness and abusive comments. Rose escapes by drinking heavily on the sly, while Peter finds solace in his studies to become a surgeon and is unyielding in his nature — a nature that’s antithetical to the ruggedness of the rest of the company.

As the tension between Phil and his new family members grows taut as a tethered rawhide rope, Phil’s reliance on his unbridled misogyny and homophobia begins to unravel.

The title of the film is a biblical reference from Psalm 22, which emphasizes deliverance from the oppressive hands of nonbelievers. Campion doesn’t easily disclose who actually wields the power here, which is where the brilliance of the film lies. In the beginning, the apparent choice is Phil, but the more Campion allows us to observe, we realize it can be anybody at any moment.

The pace of the film is at times as tedious as someone strolling through wide open spaces. At others it moves incongruently with subtle leaps through time, as though someone is painstakingly traversing through their feelings in order to lasso meaning. But Campion has the patience and the skill to follow trails across enigmatic landscapes of human emotion that cannot be navigated, let alone known, in the space of 128 minutes.

The film has won numerous awards and more are likely on the way. Deservedly so, for one of cinema’s proven master filmmakers once again shows she’s up to the task of wrangling power and mysteries of the heart.

About the Author:

Steve Piazza is a poet and writer living in Athens, GA with his wife and cat. He spent his career as an educator committed to the promotion of literacy, critical thinking, and efficacy of media and technologies. Raised in part on Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, he believes clarity of the world resides in places of discourse where image and word mingle.

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