Writer-director Jane Campion's Golden Globe winning drama and now the film with the highest BAFTA and Academy Awards nominations, The Power of the Dog is a riveting tale of character complexities in the trappings of a conventional western. Essentially an exploration of grief, fear and love, it is a story about two affluent Montana rancher brothers Phil and George (played by Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons respectively) who encounter a widow (Kirsten Dunst) and her son (Peter played by Kodi Smit-McPhee) during a cattle drive. It is the coming together of these characters under one roof which takes the plot forward. All in conflict with themselves, the movie is a microcosmic study of these dynamic set of characters and the tensions within and between them.
Explored through these characters are their love, hatred, jealousy, pain and anguish, as each of them, in their own varied intensities, deal with a past they have chosen not to forget, an identity they're trying to repress, and the loneliness they are attempting to overcome, If sedating himself in nature and keeping himself littered with muck (which can be read as an attempt to conceal his true identity) is an answer for Phil, then imbibing copiously in the darkest of corners is an escape for Rose. And despite the fact that George marries Rose to alleviate his loneliness, he is never present when she is at her most vulnerable. And as a son true to his mother, Peter has pledged to protect her at all costs. After all, flowers are very dear to him and his mother – a rose. Phil's burning of Peter's adorned paper flowers (read as Rose) in a scene foreshadows the impending friction between him and Rose.
In the narrative that unfolds through chapters, Benedict Cumberbatch plays an internally conflicted Phil Burbank, who is the eye of the storm and the sufferers of his wrath include his brother's newlywed wife and son. The tension between Phil and Rose fuels the fire for this slow burner. As George takes a literal step into the muddy water in order to bring new tunes to his life, Phil's dislike for Rose and Rose's retaliation takes different forms, taking them to some confrontational limits. The dog exerts its power gaslighting the darling. But to mention of Cumberbatch's British appearance, it was an imperfect fit for an American rancher here. He still looked like Sherlock Holmes lost in the Wild West. Nevertheless his performance as the broody, unwelcoming, unforgiving and dominating custodian of the ranch delivers. Kristen Dunst, too, brings Rose's tormented reflection to life.
In the search for a truth they are all unwilling to confront, the drama in The Power of the Dog unfolds at several layers. There's always more than it meets the eye. Campion masterfully directs and subverts our attention and emotions through the use of shadows and silhouettes, as well as a voyeuristic point of view. Many sequences are built around us, as the audience/viewer, observing these people doing things they wouldn't want otherwise to be seen doing. The camera tracks silently and on many occasions films the subjects from inside to capture a movement or action happening outside. In a scene early in the film, which takes place inside Rose's inn, it is through the broken window pane of a glazed door that she notices George. The broken pane reflects the absence of a father/husband here. And in the transformation of an effeminate lad from making origami flowers to snapping the neck of a wild rabbit, there is also an insert of what appears to be a minor injury but becomes morbidly crucial for its tragic denouement.
Delving into the depths of its characters, the film forgoes narration as a tool for offering closure to its characters but instead, Campion's controlled direction deftly interweaves perspectives of its composite characters with those of us in the audience. We are looking at each other from each other's perspectives. This is why, although the emotional payoff at the end is muted with very less of an expression of cathartic release, it is still effective. It is this particular method of storytelling which makes it work. You will want not to root for the unlikable and rude character that Phil Burbank is, but you will end up sympathizing with him.
Also, the sprawling western landscape of a 1925 Montana is recreated and filmed with picturesque perfection but the episodic depiction of the film feels rather disconnected. Rose and George's relationship develops quickly, and we don't get to see it mature. It might also require remarkable forbearing on part of the audience because it is a slow-moving film that only comes to life in the last half hour.
Campion, on the other hand, hides more in the shadows and between the chapters than she shows. The significance resides beneath the characters' emotions and reactions, like a hidden personality and a dog barking in the hills. Phil is vulnerable against his rage as his thick skin covers his many secrets but Peter is self-assured, however, afraid of losing his mother following his father's death. He places his paper flowers on his father's grave since they do not rot and because it also represents memories of him that will last forever. Rose is insecure and George is indifferent. It's all there, built metaphorically and hidden in plain sight.