Twisted Genes

The Power Of The Dog
Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Durst, Jessie Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Thomasin McKenzie, Genevieve Lemon, Keith Carradine, Peter Carroll, Alison Bruce, Sean Keenan, Adam Beach, and Frances Conroy
Director/Scriptwriter: Jane Campion (adapted from Thomas Savage's novel of the same name}
Composer: Jonny Greenwood
Cinematography: Ari Wegner
Rating: R for themed material and violence
Running Length: 128 Minutes 

The cinematography by Ari Wegner and the soundtrack by Jonny Greenwood give essence to this film of living a lie, loneliness, and for women, a male-dominated world.  Yes, the Wild West in the 1920’s, can be rude and deadly for those who don’t grasp masculine rule, dirt, dust and barb wire. Such is the setting for director Jane Campion’s adaptation of “The Power of the Dog” and stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Phil Burbank, who runs the family ranch raising cattle and horses. He is the boss and Cumberbatch portrays him as a sly, dirty clothing  person who loves to intimidate and tease anyone in his path. The only ones who like him are the ranch hands. Cumberbatch would have this role completely, except for his accent. It doesn’t sound “western” and speaking from deep in his chest, you have to pay attention to grasp his words. The basic story is about brothers as family, one brother’s family and lots of western background.  As for women,  Kirsten Durst (Rose)  fades in her scenes and there is no prominence When she does get angry, it is short-lived and then back to fading away. She is the wife of one brother, George (Jessie Plemons), and she has a son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Stoic and with spare words. Is he frightened? Shy? One can’t figure him out. So, we have a Jane Campion directed film, with three actors, Dunst, Plemons and Smit-McPhee who don’t seem to  grasp their characters. Cumberbatch, does, he is just plain sarcastic. 

We begin with Phil and George running their father’s ranch, which is their inheritance. Phil talks of a cowhand at the ranch as being a mentor to him. George marries Rose and they, with Peter, come to live at the ranch. This is a rather nice place, given the rough and dry land all around them. As years go by, Phil manages to be so sarcastic to Rose, she takes to drink. She is only noticed when it is dinnertime and she prepares a meal for 12 men. While George manages to keep a sort of peace, and Peter goes off to med school.  It is when Peter comes back and sees the condition his mother is in, that things take a different turn. The audience will perk up here and there will be opinions later as to what happened. The last half of the film delves into Phil’s past and relationship to his mentor. Peter seems to take a liking to Phil, now that Peter has matured from being at college. Every young man who lives in the west should have his own, hand-braided lariat and Phil decides it is time for Peter to have his own.  And all against the west which, in this part of the country has a reddish hue like the hills of Mars. 

One scene that stands out is when important people come to dinner. Rose plans for days. George is in charge of this and Phil decides to put him in his place by coming to dinner without washing up, telling Rose to play the piano (which she fails) and this embarrasses her and Phil laughs, then leaves the room. Rose gets back at Phil in her own way. This sets up certain features that have ramifications in the future. 

Jane Campion knows how to work the camera to great effect, and remember her for “The Piano.” There is sparse dialogue here and what is there, is not always given emphasis. Actions don’t always speak louder than words, either. I was disappointed. Each scene is set like a chapter in a book or a scene in a play.  You have to remember what just happened before, and see where it fits in now. However, the Old West does come to life on this ranch with its backdrop of bare hills, plenty of dust and sand, and men who have one foot in the past and don't quite know what the future will bring.  


Copyright 2021 Marie Asner