Movie Review: Power of Dog

Published 11 months ago -

Quinn Ryan
Math and Education Major the Power of the Dog Review 

Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog is on Netflix, nominated for 12 Oscars including best picture and best director, and is a must watch if you are at all interested in Westerns or slow burn dramas. The film follows brothers Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons) Burbank in their lives as wealthy ranchers who live in 1920’s Montana. Upon a trek with their farmhands transporting cattle, they stay at an inn run by Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst) and her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). A hostile interaction between the rude and Kurt Phil and the timid and unusual Peter leaves Rose distraught and leads to George comforting her. We then see George repeatedly visiting Rose throughout the following weeks before an abrupt announcement to Phil that the two are engaged. Phil is angry at this development, claiming that she just wants to marry George for their money, which is fitting because Phil finds every opportunity to put George down, often making insensitive remarks about his weight and demeanor. 

Rose soon moves in with the Burbank brothers and is immediately out of place. She is used to running an inn and feels useless now that she has maids to cook and clean for her, and she often spends time trying to help around the house because of this. She also feels immense pressure from George to play the piano, because he claims it is something that he loves about her, but she plays pretty poorly. We soon discover that Rose has turned to severe alcoholism due to her inability to adjust with her new setting, despite learning earlier in the film that she hates alcohol and did not even allow it in her inn. 

Peter, who is of college age, moved in with the family when the Summer rolled around, and felt equally as isolated. Peter can only be classified as an odd character, preferring to spend time reading medical journals, hula hooping, and even dissecting his own pet rabbit. To make matters worse, he is still frightened of Phil from their first interaction and blames him for both his and his mother’s discomfort. However, things change one day when Peter stumbles upon Phil’s secret area in the woods. In this part of the woods, it is clear to both Peter and the audience that Phil is hiding a large aspect of himself from the world, and after Peter uncovers this, Phil starts to treat him better. 

Towards the end of the film, Phil and Peter spend a lot of time together, getting closer and closer, but it is clear that it is not an innocent way. The tension between them rises one night when Phil is working late crafting a Hyde rope for Peter, and the two share a cigarette before going to bed. From there, the rest of the movie moves pretty quickly towards its conclusion. Phil comes down with a mysterious and sudden illness, and the movie immediately cuts to George picking out his coffin. The last shot of the film is one of the best reveals to a slow burn drama in recent memory for me, and really tied the whole movie together, not in a fulfilling or triumphant way necessarily, but in a way that told a very compelling and neat story. 

The Power of the Dog is ultimately a movie about societal expectations, and what happens to you when you fail to live up to them. The film makes this point beautifully with both Rose and Phil, who both seem to be at odds with the place that they are supposed to take in the world. Rose, for instance, finds herself in a new role as a dutiful housewife who is supposed to love her husband and tend to her family. She fails in every meaningful way, and I think that the motif of the piano illustrates this point. George essentially chose to marry an ideal, rather than an actual woman. We see this in an intimate moment between George and Rose where he starts to 

cry tears of joy, but then professes that it is because he is happy that he is no longer alone. His happiness is not tied to Rose specifically, but rather Rose as an idea. Further, he insists that she is a lovely piano player, and goes as far as to buy her an expensive grand piano and ask her to play for the Governor and his wife. Rose, who is not a good piano player, feels intense anxiety about her inability to live up to her husband’s expectation of her, which is why we see her character turn to the bottle. 

We also see Rose struggle with living up to her expectations of being a mother. From the start, she hates Phil for being so rude to her son, Peter. But then, as Phil and Peter start to build a connection, Rose feels an overwhelming sense of nervousness, wanting to protect her son but not being able to. This culminates in an intense and haunting interaction between Rose and Peter where she is extremely drunk and reminiscing with him while they are both holding back tears. Dunst earns every drop of sympathy for her character, delivering a powerful and chilling performance. 

Phil, on the other hand, seems to be a very stereotypical leading male in a classic Western, but dialed up to 11. He is rude and foreboding, and also the leader of a posse of rugged cowboys. But Phil also is dealing with a crisis of identity. We see his rough exterior when interacting with the people in his life, but in private, he reveals a lighter side of himself. We learn early on that Phil and the rest of his posse idolize a man named Bronco Henry, with Phil being the one who was closest to him. We learn the extent of Phil’s admiration for Bronco in a very intimate moment where Phil polishes and rubs Bronco’s old saddle that he keeps in the barn. Later, Phil lies in the summer sun and plays with an old piece of fabric that used to belong to Bronco, making the audience question what exactly their relationship was. Phil had the smarts to 

make it in high society but rejects it and even looks down on those who he sees as pursuing higher class. 

Phil’s death ultimately reveals that living a life that is so sheltered and foreign to your feelings is impossible. Phil’s whole persona and ego are designed to keep the people in his life at a distance from his sensitive side. Moreover, Rose’s fall into alcoholism shows that trying and failing to live up to the expectations that are set for you is unbelievably damaging. 

The last thing that I want to touch on before the end of this article is just how stunning this movie is to look at. Campion chose to shoot the film in the hills of New Zealand, which serve as a beautiful substitute for Montana. The nature scenes and camera angles that Campion chooses to use add a majestic element to the dark and dramatic themes. My only critique was that there seemed to be portions that could have moved along a little faster, which would cut down on that two hour and five-minute run time, but the film as a whole was very entertaining, deep, and well made. 4.5 out of 5 stars. 

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