The Power of the Dog ***1/2
One Liner Review:
A hauntingly creepy western, filled with beautiful imagery, but a deep dark story, this one is a pretty special movie.
Now this is a strangely artistic and haunting movie. It’s a film about a bully in the old west and the way that you can actually understand, at times, where he’s coming from. But you can also understand and feel for the family that he makes life miserable for, and get on board with their plan of how to stop him. If all of that sounds very simple, that’s because it’s the stripped down version of what’s really going on here. We have a team of ranchers led by Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch, giving an incredible performance.) He’s got some secrets in his closet that lead him to bully the effeminate Peter. This causes Peter’s mom and Phil’s brother to end up together, which only makes things worse for Phil, who believes his brother is being taken away from him. The tension continues to build in this movie, and the use of Roman Numerals for acts helps the viewer keep track of exactly how this story unfolds one part at a time. On a first viewing the movie can definitely be kind of slow, as the viewer doesn’t know where it’s going or what it all means. But once the pieces are in place, and on subsequent viewings, this one just gets better and better. It is a psychological film in the old west, and boy is it smart.
First off, everything here depends on Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance. The movie has four different actors nominated for Oscars, (nominated in all four acting races,) and all of the players nominated are certainly good, but Cumberbatch is the one who really needs to deliver for any of this to work. And he does. The Doctor Strange star plays a rancher named Phil, here, who is hiding some deep, dark secrets. And more than that, he’s got personality flaws that make him extremely unlikeable. Until he’s not, and he goes through a sort of change in the second half. But for most of the movie, Phil is just unpleasant and terrible, and clearly the villain of the movie. He more or less terrorizes a family. And that family happens to be his brothers.
The movie is really about these two brothers, Phil and George, who have been riding together since they were boys. They were trained by a man named Bronco Henry, who Phil still regards as his mentor and the man who made both of them what they are today, despite Bronco Henry being long dead. Early on, Phil makes a speech to “the brothers Romulus and Remus and the wolf who raised them,” referencing the mythology of Ancient Rome, and the brother who killed his twin and then raised the city. Phil and George own a company that takes care of cattle and horses. They live at an inn that is part of a small town with exactly one bar and one restaurant. The caretaker at the inn and also at the restaurant is Rose, played by Kirsten Dunst.
She is the second of the actors nominated for an oscar. The third is George, played by Dunst’s real life husband, Jessie Plemmens. And then there’s the actor who plays Rose’s college-aged son, Peter, (Kodi Smit-McPhee.) He’s a fairly new face (he played Nightcrawler in the X-Men reboot films, but that’a about it,) and he’s fantastic here. The idea is that Phil and his group of rag tag ranchers eat at the restaurant and give the boy a hard time. Peter is effeminate, and Phil makes fun of the boy for no good reason at all. When we learn Phil’s secret later on, the reasons for him giving Peter a hard time earlier make a little more sense and have to do with suppression, but early on, Phil seems like just a regular bully as he burns the boy’s flower decorations and jokes about Peter’s lisp, imitating the boys’ voice as he talks about the way to hold a napkin and how the over the arm maneuver is only for the drips.
The insulting of Peter gets to Rose, and after the restaurant has cleared out, (or so she thinks,) Rose cries be herself in the kitchen. Only she’s not a lone and George, in fact, has stayed behind to pay her for the meal. He goes into the kitchen and consoles her, and the next thing you know, they are hitting it off. That night, Phil stands at the bar, away from his men who are partying it up with the local women. Phil is not interested. He leaves the bar to turn in early, wanting only his brother’s company. And he can’t get it, as George is nowhere to be found. Later on, when George returns home (to the bed that the two men share together,) Phil learns that George was with Rose. Now here’s the irony… Phil will spend the rest of the movie resenting Rose for taking his brother away from him, but it is actually Phil who drove George right into Rose’s arms, with the comments he made about her son.
The movie is very smart in the way that it uses numerals to show the five different acts of the story. Not enough movies do this, really helping the audience carve out the different parts of the narrative, and the ones that do, generally turn out to be damn good films. One can’t help but be reminded of Promising Young Woman, one of the best movies of last year. In that film, the numeral images were used to show the different parts of a plan. Here, they are used to separate time and story beats. The first act ends with George and Rose establishing a relationship. In the second act, George and Rose take that relationship to the next level. They get married. It starts with George showing up just to see Rose, and then giving her a hand with serving the dishes, since he son is not available that day. Pretty soon Rose can’t resist this man who has taken such an interest in her, any longer, and so they are married and Phil is no more angry than ever. He thinks his brother is being used by Rose who just wants her paws into his pockets to have enough money to send Peter to college. Phil ends the act by beating a horse in anger, something that makes him pretty unforgivable to the audience.
If you think that’s unforgivable, wait until Phil starts terrorizing Rose with a song, causing her to start drinking and then shortly afterwards to become a full-blown alcoholic. This third act is the big turn of the movie. It’s the big event that propels the movie away from the first half and into the second. This act is all about a dinner party. George has invited his parents to come to town and to meet his new bride. He has also invited the governor and his wife to be at the same dinner party. And he brings in a Baby Grand piano to get Rose to practice playing. She used to work in the pit of an orchestra, and performed during movies, so George figures this is no different. She can play music that night, and impress everyone. Only whenever Rose tries to practice, Phil shows up humming a version of the song that completely throws Rose off. When the big night comes, she can’t play at all. But even before that night, everything this movie does to set the night up, and show characters preparing for it, is fantastic. There’s not only Rose trying to learn how to play, but also the conversation between George and Phil about bathing before the party, which George just cannot get out. And then there’s the dinner party, with all it’s awkwardness, that only gets worse when Rose tries to play and completely fails. The scene ends with her having a drink, which is a huge irony or turning point, because up until now, Rose was very against drinking at all.
The dinner party is the perfect half way point, because not only does it give us the catalyst for change, but when we come back to the characters for act four, Rose is going to pick up Peter at school, for the summer, and bring him home. Those last two acts are all about Peter, whereas other than at the very start of the film, he was hardly in the first half. And yet, his part in the early scenes is so crucial, because it’s Phil’s berating of him that ends up bringing George and Rose together. Now, in act four, Peter returns home to find his mom in bad shape. She has a bottle of booze hidden behind the pillows of her bed, and Peter pushes it further into the pillows, not wanting her to know that he knows. But when they go out to play tennis together, he can’t turn a blind eye anymore. This is where Rose becomes sick during the game and has to go into an alley to vomit. Only what she’s really doing is finding a bottle that she has hidden there, and having another drink. And it’s in this moment, as she’s in the alley at her lowest point, that Phil sees her from the window of the building next to the alley and whistles that tune. It’s the same tune of the song that Rose couldn’t sing.
And just in case you start to think, oh it’s only a song, and she can probably just ignore that, Rose has a conversation with Peter about how sounds affect her. She starts by talking about the sound of Peter running his fingers through his comb. Then she merges this into a story about a teacher she once had who would write on the blackboard in such a way that it hurt her ears. And all the while, we know what she’s getting at is that Phil’s whistling and tormenting is driving her insane. Peter even calls it out, asking his mom, “It’s Phil, isn’t it?” To which she responds, “He’s only a man.” But Peter says “You don’t have to do this,” to her, and “I’ll see to it.” In other words, he’s got a plan. And it’s here, in the second to last act of the movie (the fourth act,) that we see Peter realizing that something needs to be done about his mother’s terrible situation, and he needs to be the one to do it.
The final act is where this all comes out. It starts with Phil taking a liking to Peter, which is incredibly unexpected. He offers to take the boy out, teach him to ride, and even make him a rope out of cattle hide. At first it seems like maybe Phil is doing this because he’s found another way to torment Rose. He hates Rose, because she has taken his brother away from him, and he has made it his goal to drive her insane. But when Peter tells Phil that he sees the shadow of the dog on the mountainside, just the same way that Phil and Bronco Henry did, but nobody else can, Phil starts to think the boy might be special. And so Phil teaches and trains him, and the Peter goes off on his own, riding a horse on the mountainside to find what he needs in order to enact his plan.
Peter does get a little help with his plan in the form of Native Americans who come buy and buy the hides from his mother. These are hides that Phil was keeping and planned to burn. Why he would burn them instead of selling them is never really explained, but a best guess is that by burning them he feels superior to the Native Americans. Only Rose learns that this is what Phil wants to do, and she does the opposite in order to get her own form of vengeance against Phil. And this plays into Peter’s plan perfectly. Without revealing what that plan is, let’s just say it is devious and haunting, and it really works. This is a powerful, thrilling movie. On a first viewing it’s a little slow, as one doesn’t know how the pieces connect or where they all fit together. After that, however, every detail seems important and worth noticing, in this very dark and clever.