The power of the dogWritten and directed by Jane Campion, many consider Benedict Cumberbatch’s film to portray an intimidating, hyper-masculine cowboy in 1925 Montana. Cumberbatch is great, I admit. But I think it’s Kodi Smit-McPhee movie as Peter, the “Nancy Boy” in the story. Hear me out.
The power of the dog opens with Peter, in voiceover, supplying these lines. “When my father passed away, I wanted nothing more than my mother’s happiness. What kind of man would I be if I didn’t help my mother? If I didn’t save her?”
Peter and his mother Rose (Kirsten Dunst) have a small hotel/café near a railway line. When Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his crew of cowboys bring a herd there for transportation, the cowboys sleep and eat at Rose’s house. Phil’s brother, George (Jesse Plemons), who rides his horse in a suit, tie and bowler hat, manages the finances there.
Peter makes paper flowers for his father’s grave. He serves tables with a towel over his arm like a wine steward. Phil targets him with mockery and contempt. He calls Peter a Nancy Boy. He makes Rose cry. The cowhands, who watch Phil with admiration, join in the bullying and teasing.
Later, George returns to Rose’s. He marries Rose and takes her to the ranch. Peter is in medical school.
Phil isn’t nicer to Rose when she’s at his house that he was before. He torments her in many ways. She is coping with it by drinking and staying away from him.
Phil was full of contradictions. He had gone east to an Ivy League college where he studied the classics. He played the banjo very well. He loved to enjoy the dirt and stench of life on the farm. He called his brother “Fatso”, but depended on him and wanted his approval. He displayed cowhides on his fence in plain sight and ordered his staff to tell the Shoshone people who came asking to trade hides that there were none.
Rose caused a big scene when she ran after a Native American man and gave him all the hides in exchange for a beautiful pair of soft, beaded leather gloves.
When school is out in the summer, Peter goes with them to the ranch. He brings a row of medical books, a set of surgical instruments and some rubber gloves. He uses these tools to practice dissection on any creatures he can grab, such as helpless bunnies.
Phil adores the man who taught him to drive. He speaks fondly of the dead Bronco Henry. He is still soaping the dead man’s saddle with sensual strokes. He has a hidden lair by the river where he swims naked and hides magazines with pictures of naked men.
Peter, of course, understands Phil’s secret. He finds Phil’s hidden place. He befriends Phil who changes to consider himself Peter’s mentor. He takes Peter on rides, teaching him things about farming, like staying away from any animal that has died of anthrax. Phil begins to weave a rope of rawhide for Peter.
George is often on business trips and Rose is increasingly miserable and depressed at the ranch house. She often spends most of the day in bed. As the tension in this dysfunctional situation mounts, Peter sees a solution.
The storytelling progress was brilliant. It wasn’t until the end came with its surprise that we recognized the strange dissonances we’d felt along the way when Campion left clues. It was exciting and masterfully done.
Jane Campion is a director whose work I never miss. I thought The power of the dog was extremely good, even to her.
Filmed in New Zealand, not Montana, this is definitely one of the most beautiful movies I’ve ever seen. Campion and cameraman Ari Wegner turn every frame of the more than two-hour film into a work of art. It’s breathtaking and perfect.
The power of the dog is available on Netflix and is definitely a must-see movie for 2021.