The Power of the Dog

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It’s award season for movies. On February 8 nominees are announced for the 94th Academy Awards. In preparation, I’m watching the top picked films that may receive the honor of a nomination.

One film, The Power of the Dog, is a stand out already. This Netflix film has garnered a staggering 262 nominations and 183 wins, in a variety of movie categories and award platforms. Those stats placed it high on my “must watch” list.

Check out my movie review and my thoughts about this slow burn drama. No spoilers included.

The Power of the Dog title meme

The Power of the Dog Cast

This western…and I use that term loosely…stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Durnst, Jesse Plemons and Kodi Smit-McPhee. Jane Campion wrote the screenplay, based on the novel by Thomas Savage. She directed the film as well.

The Power of the Dog carries an R rating, for sexuality, smoking and mild alcohol use and language. It has a run time of 2 hours and 6 minutes.

Two Brothers

In 1925 Montana, brothers Phil (Cumberbatch) and George (Plemons) carry on managing the ranch, after their elderly parents return to the east to live.

The wealthy brothers share the austere family home, little changed since their childhood, which suits Phil fine. As the elder brother, Phil runs the ranch, inspiring fear and awe in the hired cowboys, and controls his younger sibling. He is rugged and unkept, bathing infrequently in the river, with a severe type of charisma that both attracts and repels others.

While he seldom shows appreciation for anyone else, Phil idolizes the mentor from his youth, Bronco Henry. Not a day goes by on the ranch that Phil doesn’t share a larger than life story about the now dead cowboy.

George lives in his brother’s shadow. Thoughtful, quiet and more refined, he allows Phil to make all of the decisions. And when his brother treats others cruelly, George surreptitiously does his best to smooth over the situation.

That’s how George meets his wife.

The Power of the Dog phil
The Power of the Dog – Phil. played by Benedict Cumberbatch
The Power of the Dog george
The Power of the Dog – George, played by Jesse Plemons

A Mother and Her Son

After driving cattle to a nearby town, Phil, George and the cowboys dine at the local inn. Rose (Durst), widowed with a teenage son, prepares the meal. Peter (Smit-McPhee), a gentle, artistic young man, helps his mother out by serving the rowdy guests. Phil’s taunts and jeers, egged on by the cowboys, brings tears from Rose and Peter.

George stays behind, after dinner, to comfort Rose. That quiet show of tenderness leads to frequent visits, by George, to see Rose. By the time Phil realizes where George is going, and seeks to dissuade him from pursuing Rose, it’s too late. George and Rose married, without Phil’s knowledge or consent.

The somewhat downcast Peter goes away to school, to study medicine. Rose joins her new husband and brother-in-law at the ranch.

The Power of the Dog rose
The Power of the Dog – Rose, played by Kirsten Dunst
The Power of the Dog peter
The Power of the Dog – Peter, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee

A Hellish Summer

Phil strongly dislikes Rose and what he sees as a disruption to his routines and his life. He rebuffs all of her attempts to merge into his family, making her feel unwelcome and unworthy. Rose’s despondency deepens, made worse when her son Peter arrives at the ranch during summer break.

Phil’s taunting now focuses primarily on Peter, who is unaccustomed to ranch life. The young man spends most of his time in his room, studying medical books and performing dissections on field rabbits that he catches.

And then, unexpectedly, Phil softens toward Peter, teaching the boy how to ride a horse and work on the ranch. He shares Bronco Henry tales, hand plaits a rawhide rope for Peter and for the first time, opens up about his own youth.

The sudden friendship between Phil and Peter does nothing to soothe Rose. In fact, she seeks ways to hurt the man she so despises. Is Phil truly changing and becoming more vulnerable? Or is something else going on?

The Power of the Dog love
The Power of the Dog – is love enough?

My Thoughts About The Power of the Dog

I’m not a huge fan of westerns. However, to my delight, The Power of the Dog is less a western than a subtly played out drama. While there are cowboys and a ranch and incredible vistas, the story focuses on the complicated relationships between Phil and George, Phil and Rose and Phil and Peter.

Phil is the central character and he is one angry, manipulative man. And yet, as much as I disliked his cruelty, I first pitied him and then felt unexpected compassion for all that he kept painfully hidden in his life.

There’s a youngness to Phil that hints that he became trapped in his youth…and never grew beyond it. As adults, he and George still share a room, sleeping in twin beds, but sharing space as they did in their childhood. He dislikes bathing, makes up his own rules, resorts to name calling and taunting and rejects outsiders. Rather than share who he is or what he has, he chooses to destroy so others can’t have it.

All four primary actors give outstanding performances. Benedict Cumberbatch should pick up a Best Actor Oscar.

And Jane Campion excellently builds out this complex story. She reveals, layer by layer, until the end brings a surprising twist that immediately made me think, “Now I need to watch it all again.” That’s the power of this film. I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

I’ll watch the Oscars, fully expecting this movie to pick up multiple awards. Have you seen The Power of the Dog? What did you think?

The Power of the Dog ranch

 

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9 Replies to “The Power of the Dog”

  1. I haven’t heard of it, but I was just thinking the other day about Kirstien durnst because I watched the old Spiderman movies.

  2. It sounds like a good one! Thank you for the review! I’m interested to see Cumberbatch in a western. Good read!

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