Joining the Family (Film Review: “The Power of the Dog”)

An unnervingly suspenseful period family drama about two rancher brothers whose delicate yet dysfunctional relationship is toppled when one brings a widow and her son home to join the family. This can’t end well.

SnapShot Plot

In the mysterious and beguiling film, The Power of the Dog, one only has to pay attention to the brief opening narration in order to attempt some understanding of one of the most subtle movie endings in recent memory. In it, a young man named Peter talks about his love for his mother, Rose, stating his central mission in life is to protect her at any cost. Peter is played with an almost infuriatingly delicate and self-satisfied solitude by Australian actor, Kodi Smit-McPhee (who starred in Slow West, another Norma’s favorite, again in the Western genre). Rose is portrayed by Kirsten Dunst as a sensitive soul way too delicate herself for the culture of toxic masculinity which abounds in 1925 Montana, where the story is set.

The almost biblically opposite brothers, Phil and George, exist in an uneasy equilibrium in which Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) browbeats his brother (played by Jesse Plemons) mercilessly yet seems so tortured by his own nature that no one really stands up to him. Phil is a menacing brute, and around him, George is rendered almost mute in his subjugation. Until the day that Rose and Peter enter their lives, after which nothing will remain the same. In Phil’s eyes, Rose and her son are conniving interlopers intent on stealing all he’s worked so hard to create, and what’s worse, besmirching the cherished memory of a macho figure named Bronco Henry who looms larger than life in Phil’s past.

In reality, Phil’s utter presence manifests as a simmering threat to Rose and Peter, who – unprotected by an emotionally absent George – react to their new surroundings in different ways. Rose takes solace in a self-damaging medium. Peter is much more calculating, as it turns out. Has Phil finally met his match?

Parting Shot

The film is based on the novel by Don Winslow and written/directed in character-driven subtleties by the legendary Australian filmmaker Jane Campion (The Piano; Top of the Lake). The Power of the Dog is a visually stunning piece of movie-making, with a score by Johnny Greenwood that achieves both Pathos and Suspense in such equal measure that you find yourself almost moved to tears while being creeped out as you nervously anticipate the worst kinds of violence, much of which is merely suggested rather than displayed.

The underlying theme of repressed homosexuality, distilled into a toxic blend with the overlaying of macho masculinity, is perfectly expressed in this film. In Ari Wegner’s cinematography, the harshness of the environment and the roughness of ranching life are portrayed in awe-inspiring, starkly beautiful landscapes which suggest so much of the romanticization of this world and the creations of countless legends across the generations.

A word about Benedict Cumberbatch, who may have single-handedly made this very fine film into something great. Cumberbatch is proving himself one of the greats of his generation, capable of imbuing any character – both human and comic book – with truly visceral gravitas. His Phil is a study in self-loathing fury masquerading as butch bravado, capable of so much but crippled by forces both social, religious and political. . . clearly imprisoned by the sexual mores of his day. And yet he cannot escape scrutiny or judgment for the torture he himself inflicts on those around him.

The ending of The Power of the Dog is so subtle and mysterious it might just slip by until you realize what may have really happened. At which point you start puzzling some of the pieces of the past together to form a particular kind of picture that leaves you both impressed and saddened, in characteristically strange and symbolic ways. It’s a quiet resolution that resonates deep within.

The Power of the Dog is presently streaming on Netflix.

Norma’s Streaming Picks is proud to partner on a fantastic site for Baby Boomers, Midcentury/Modern (presently known as Pandemic Diaries) as well as right here at home. I invite you to go there for more great content!

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