Jane Campion doesn’t make movies often, and that’s why The power of the dog – now on Netflix – as a gift. Director of Piano and In Cut haven’t made a movie since 2009 Bright Star, although she created and co-directed the series Top of the Lake, the first of which ranked among the best TV series of the last decade. Now, she adapts Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel American West The power of the dog with an inspiring cast, including Kirsten Dunst, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Jesse Plemons and especially Benedict Cumberbatch, who will likely give the best performance of his career.
Gist: Montana, 1925. It’s been 25 years since the Burbank brothers handled their first cattle race. These two men are only brothers in name: Phil (Cumberbatch) wears chaps and spurs, working the grasslands with the men at their jobs. He will take a knife and castrate a bull without gloves. He likes being dirty and likes being dirty. He was rude, big, rough, smelled like a warehouse floor. He plays the banjo while talking through the door with George (Plemons), who is sitting in the bathtub. Phil affectionately but not too affectionately calls him “fatso”. George is a discreet, caring, orderly person who loves to tie bows and comb his hair. They owned the farm and all the cattle heads and a big house on the land – a house big enough for both of them, for the Burbans had a lot of money. But strangely enough, they still shared a bedroom, two skinny beds separated by a nightstand.
Phil and George lead their ranch to the nearest small town for a meal and company with the women and a night at the inn. They dine at the Red Mill, where Rose (Dunst) cooks a chicken dinner and her son Peter waits for them. Peter is what one might call an oddball. He is delicate confetti, meticulously handcrafted, lividly speaking. Phil bullies him relentlessly, using one of the confetti to light him up. Peter walks out the back door and hula hoops angrily. George sat quietly while all the other men cleaned up, hearing Rose’s cries in the kitchen, comforting her. The next day, he helped her make breakfast. Not long after, they get married and she moves to the brothers’ cold Moosehead Manor and Peter starts going to school to become a surgeon. Rose gives George a dance lesson in front of a postcard set in the craggy mountains as Phil takes a pen and paper to rip their parents apart, telling them that George was having an affair with a “suicide widow”. Phil has to sleep alone in that room now. He went out into the stables and hit his horse unnecessarily.
Phil isn’t nice – well, he’s not nice to anything. It was anything that wasn’t horseback riding and cattle riding with men. He ventured into the nearby woods and ducked through a secret chalet to his sanctuary, a lakeside spot where he could undress and smear mud and swim and bathe. George buys Rose a grand piano and forces her to play for him, although she says she only knows the “melodies” she learned playing in the “cinema”; His pressure is fragile, but pressure is nonetheless. Phil hangs around the campus, playing his banjo as she tries to work her way to a tune, distracting her, belittling her without saying a word. She drank until she fell ill and George was kind but cold and aloof. Before long, Peter will finish school for the summer and move to a place where he can’t be welcomed or accepted, and we wonder if Campion is arranging the pieces so the game can be played or not, or the board can be broken.
Performances worth watching: I sat blankly with Cumberbatch as he silently transitioned from ruthlessness to semi-random sensibilities, while maintaining the mantle of intimidation that made his motives murky. His interactions with Smit-McPhee – who really comes into his own here – in the final third of the film are a rich combination of setting, performance, material and direction that feel real rarity and special
Memorable dialogue: Phil uses the prediction without shame in his insightful analysis of Peter: “Her son needs to come out of it and get human. ”
Gender and Skin: The cowboys are NOT GAY ALL jumping naked in ol’ waterholes.
Our Take: So what is Phil’s damage? He’s magnetic and manipulative, yet irritating and divisive, a central figure of a great synthesis: His dependent relationship with George. His rivalry with Rose. His antagonism with Peter. His friendship with the farmhand. A barn shrine immortalizes a man called Bronco Henry, who has been dead for more than two decades, his saddle and spur on display. Phil just respects Bronco Henry’s memory. Bronco Henry Bronco Henry Bronco Henry. Every now and then, Phil took the saddle down and sensitively oiled it. Loosen it. Bronco. Henry.
The appearance of eldest brother Burbanks (Frances Conroy and Peter Carroll) to dinner with the governor (David Carradine) causes Phil to subtly reject the high social status of his family and upbringing. “So he cursed cattle in Greek or Latin?” jokes with the governor, a rare moment when Phil doesn’t have full control of tone and story at the ranch, and when that happens, pieces of truth are exposed – insecurity, vulnerability hurt, his true self. He ruined dinner. George wants him to shower and that’s not going to happen. “You tell them the truth—that I stink and I like it,” growled Cumberbatch.
Rose is an outsider at Burbank Farm, which sits beside the majestic beauty of the mountains, a sensual and mysterious landscape that Campion reveres, in contrast to the restrained interior of that large house, with creepy decor and dark wooden walls. . The truth is out in the woods, where Phil can be his purest self; Whatever happened in that house, whether subtle or overt, poisoned him until his soul hardened, and all but George fell silent into a sort of crippling stupidity. Rose carries her own speechless heartache, and she feels small but desperate, so she self-medicates. Her dear Peter arrived, in pristine white shoes, pure white socks hugging her bony ankles. He is a tender and vulnerable target for Phil, who feels – what exactly? Hideous? Or aphrodisiac? Peter is the catalyst for change, but what exactly will that change look like? The movie leaves us breathless. Threat of violence, threat of kindness. Or maybe extremely scary.
Our call: INSTRUCTIONS IT. Campion is on the same spot as The power of the dog.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com.
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