‘The Power of the Dog’ Review: Jane Campion’s Psychodramatic Western Is Impeccably Crafted but Lacks the Major Voices of ‘The Piano’
Jane Campion is a great filmmaker who has always marched to a different (at times dissonant) drummer. But I suspect I’m far from alone when I say that I’ve long yearned to see her make another movie that can speak with the populist poetry and passion of “The Piano” — her most famous and successful film, and also (tellingly) her most artful. I raise the issue because “The Power of the Dog,” Campion’s eighth feature in 30 years, is a frontier Western made with a stately and austere poker-faced modernist classicism, and roiling undercurrents, that sometimes bring the earlier film to mind. It’s a movie in which Campion, who shot it in her native New Zealand, works with a full-scale, at times painterly precision and control. It’s also a socially conscious psychodrama that builds, over time, to a full boil.
Yet there’s a key difference between this movie and “The Piano.” In the earlier film, Holly Hunter played a woman who chose not to speak but declaimed her spirit with the most enthralling inner voice of any movie character that year. In “The Power of the Dog,” the characters have secrets, buried motives, hidden drives, yet the filmmaker treats them all, in a certain way, like puzzle pieces, fitting them into a grand scheme that connects with the audience in an overly programmatic way. The film’s message is unassailable, but that isn’t the same thing as devastating, which is what “The Power of the Dog” wants to be.
Reaching back to a Hollywood tradition built on films like “East of Eden,” and also to Terrence Malick’s rural art-house parable “Days of Heaven,” Campion, who wrote the script (based on Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel), centers the tale on two adult brothers who have spent enough of their lives intertwined to know just how different they are. The movie is set in 1925 in the mountain wilds of Montana, where the Burbank brothers, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons), preside over a sprawling property on which they raise livestock and train horses. They’re successful ranchers, with money in the bank and a farmhouse mansion done up in mahogany paneling, with art on the walls right next to the trophy heads.
But these two are fatal opposites. Phil, played by Cumberbatch as a drawling cowboy monomaniac with a mean leer that makes him seem at times like an evil Dennis Quaid, is a haughty macho customer who rolls his own cigarettes, taunts his brother by calling him “Fatso,” and likes nothing better than to ride the range and go boozing and whoring with his stable of hired hands. He’s also got an over-the-top fixation on Bronco Henry, the cowboy from their youth who taught them everything they know. By contrast, George, played by Plemons in bow ties and bowler hats, is a mild officious type who’s the civilized superego to his brother’s rawhide id.
The tension between these two is already simmering when fate, in the middle of a cattle drive, takes them to a rooming house run by Rose (Kirsten Dunst). She’s a widow with a teenage son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), an aspiring medical student who speaks with a lisp, carries his folded wine napkin just so, and has a yen for crafting intricate fake flowers out of paper. As the cowhands sit down to their fried-chicken dinner, Phil zeroes in on the slender boy like a predator. “Ain’t them purdy,” he says of the flowers, then mocks the boy’s lisp with savage sarcasm. The contempt on display needs no explanation, but George, while he stays silent, is of a different mind. He’s not a homophobic macho in chaps. He’s a courtly nerd who knows he’s approaching middle age, and he makes a decision that shocks Phil and gets sprung on the audience so that we’re caught off guard too. He pays a visit to Rose, and the next thing you know the two are married. He’s bringing Rose and Peter to live on the ranch. Which, from Phil’s point-of-view, kind of throws a monkey wrench into their manly cowboy paradise.
“The Power of the Dog” starts off as a testy romantic fable of sibling rivalry, with Phil, in his crafty way, hellbent on destroying the domestic tranquility that his brother has found, and that he doesn’t believe in. It’s not clear that George believes in it either. He buys Rose a baby grand piano and tries to give her the life she wants, but he’s not around enough to make that stick, and she turns to nipping from bottles of bourbon she hides around the house. Kirsten Dunst does depressive fragility with consummate grace, but I wish the movie gave her something to play besides tremulous ragged despair. I also wish that Jesse Plemons, after a good first act or two, didn’t fade out of the center of the story.
The movie becomes a kind of showdown between Phil and the people he sees as interlopers. Rose ups the ante when she gives Phil’s cowhides away to their Native American neighbors; it seems that Phil doesn’t like indigenous traders any more than he likes lisping flower makers. There are good sinister scenes like one in which Phil sits playing the banjo, mocking the piano piece that Rose is rehearsing in nervous anticipation of a dinner party with the governor (played by a wily Keith Carradine). The crucial twist is that Phil, under his nastiness, is playing out his own buried longing. That reverence for Bronco Henry? It starts to look like an eroticized obsession — or maybe the twisted response to abuse. When Phil, to our surprise, starts to take Peter “under his wing” (and starts to weave a phallic rodeo braid), we’re primed to look for dark echoes of that relationship.
All of this should build, slowly and inexorably, in force and emotion. But for a film that’s actually, at heart, rather tidy and old-fashioned in its triangular gamesmanship, “The Power of the Dog” needed to get to a more bruising catharsis. In its crucial last act, the film becomes too oblique. Cumberbatch has the showpiece role, and he’s good, but there’s not enough dramatic layering to Phil’s repression and violence. Campion has made a movie whose dramatic upshot is to denounce homophobia — an unassailable message. But maybe, at this point, not a revelatory one. “The Piano” was wrenching because it channeled the passion that social oppression couldn’t hold back. “The Power of the Dog” is more like an artful diagram of passion.
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