“Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog.” From that biblical phrase comes one of the most grueling films you will ever see. It’s as if Netflix asked Jane Campion to make an art film about dull, uninteresting folks in a barren part of Montana. For those who don’t recognize the name Jane Campion, she received the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for The Piano (1993). More recently, I gave her high marks for Top of the Lake. Based on the 1967 novel, The Power of the Dog, a mean, nasty, cruel man gets his comeuppance. As for me, I’d rather run a marathon through Death Valley in the middle of the summer than sit through it again.
Many of you will likely be enticed by the 95% Rotten Tomatoes rating of The Power of the Dog. Even the 7.0/10 IMDB score gives one pause. The brief Netflix description reads “a domineering but charismatic rancher wages a war of intimidation on his brother’s new wife and her teen son — until long-hidden secrets come to light.” Let me parse that phrase. First, he’s an arse, as the Brits might say, certainly not charismatic in any sense of the word. Terrorizing and condescending better describes Phil Burbank. And the secrets are so telegraphed that any viewer will spot them from Wyoming, maybe even the Dakotas.
Did I like anything about The Power of the Dog? The cinematography is nice although Montana looks more like New Zealand where the actual filming took place. Mostly, I was glad the film ended. It was brutal. The Power of the Dog gets 1.0 Gavel and that’s probably generous.
In 1925, Phil Burbank lords it over his brother, “Fatso” George, that he was Phi Beta Kappa at Yale. For the past 25 years they’ve prospered driving cattle to market, taught by their mentor, Bronco Henry. Tired of being alone, George marries the widow, Rose Gordon. Her son, Peter, is artistic and effeminate. Phil sees Rose as a fortune hunter and constantly belittles Peter, as Little Lord Fauntleroy and worse. Moved to the ranch by her husband, the taunts get worse and Rose turns to drink. Will George protect his wife and stepson?
The Power of the Dog has a stellar cast of Benedict Cumberbatch, (The Electrical Life of Louis Wain), Kirsten Dunst (The Beguiled) and Jesse Plemens (Jungle Cruise). As Phil, Rose, and George, respectively, each does their absolute best to make you feel miserably uncomfortable. Real critics tend to like that sort of thing, audiences less so. Likewise, Kodi Smit-McPhee impresses as Peter, but are we to celebrate his ultimate behavior?
The Power of the Dog is one of those films that likely has all sorts of hidden meanings. Are you in the mood to work that hard? The whole Bronco Henry, homophobia, seduction, revenge plot just becomes tiring rather than illuminating or entertaining. Are we to take from this that the entire West was bigoted one hundred years ago?
“Insisting on the significance of its themes, the film dispenses one emotion at a time while it creates a pervasive atmosphere of dread. Yet there’s no air in the atmosphere, not much life in the brooding landscapes.” Wall Street Journal
“Unnecessary ponderousness, dressed up with lots of period detail. Oscar voters often confuse failing to get to the point with importance, especially if the movie looks pretty.” National Review
Make a film about toxic masculinity and critics eat it up. Let’s move on.