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Posts Tagged ‘Jane Campion’

Kodi Smit-McPhee, Benedict Cumberbatch

“THE POWER OF THE DOG” My rating: B (Netflix)

126 minutes | MPAA rating: R

I’m not sure that “The Power of the Dog” totally adds up, but its individual equations are often so riveting as to carry us along on a wave of pure creativity.

Based on Thomas Savage’s late-60s novel, the latest from writer/director Jane Campion  (“The Piano”) is less a conventional Western than an incisive dissection of four distinct and often contradictory personalities.

It’s also one of the year’s most visually splendid efforts, so spectacularly framed and shot (by Ari Wegner) that at times it takes on the depth of a masterwork painting.

Bachelor brothers Phil and George Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons) own a sprawling Montana ranch in the 1920s.  Their substantial wood-paneled home, crammed with expensive furniture and a world-class collection of stuffed wildlife, speaks of massive riches.

And yet the brothers seem indifferent to their wealth.  Phil is the brains and muscle of the outfit, a lanky cowboy who calls the shots and — despite an Ivy League education — is most comfortable on horseback.  He and George inherited the ranch, but Phil learned how to run it at the feet of a near-mythical character called Bronco Henry, who has been dead for some years.

George is, well, kind of useless.  He’s a round-faced cipher who dresses like a banker even on a cattle drive; he has pretty much handed the reins to Phil, who openly addresses  him as “Fatso.”

Jesse Plemons, Kristen Dunst

Conflict arrives with George’s unexpected marriage to Rose (Kirsten Dunst, Plemmons’ real-life spouse),  operator of a boarding house in the small rail center where the Dunbars deposit their herd. 

Phil openly accuses Rose of being a gold digger.

Adding even more tension is Rose’s teenage son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), an impossibly thin, lanky kid with an artistic bent (he fashions exquisite flowers from scraps of paper). Phil immediately labels Pete a “Nancy boy” and takes sadistic pleasure in tormenting the newcomer, inviting the other cowpokes to get in on the fun.

It doesn’t take a psych degree to see that the effeminate Peter is stirring up Phil’s own long-suppressed homoerotic tendencies.  Yet “The Power of the Dog”  is far from a traditional coming-out tale.

While there’s genuine sweetness in the thick George’s love of his new wife; that’s not enough to keep Rose from seeking solace in a bottle.  A  Montana ranch is lonely for a woman; Phil’s sneering putdowns make it even worse.

Meanwhile young Peter slowly emerges as the most complex character in sight.  Far from trying hide his “otherness,” he flaunts it.  His posture, his manner of talking, his clothing choices…all seem to be calculated as a silent affront to the cowboy machismo surrounding him.  

In the film’s latter stages it almost seems as if the hard-hearted Phil is undergoing a positive transformation. He slowly takes Peter under his wing, teaching him to ride and rope, and is pleasantly surprised to discover that he and the boy may be on the same aesthetic and philosophical wavelength.

But that is only the setup for a betrayal so devastating that it turns inside out what we think we know about at least two of these characters.

“Power of the Dog” is not a copacetic experience;  it seethes with anger and unhqppiness.  

But it unfolds in an environment of austere beauty. It was filmed in Campion’s native New Zealand, and the nearly bare hills and brown palette create a Western landscape unlike anything I’ve seen before.

The performances are pretty much off the charts, especially from Cumberbatch and Smit-McPhee — the former a bully who slowly reveals his sensitive side, the latter a seeming sissy who in reality harbors a methodical and implacable core of steel.

| Robert W. Butler

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