Saturday, July 2, 2022

In the Reels: ‘The Power of the Dog’ best of year

By Cameron Kaercher 

As 2021 winds down, Netflix is preparing a strong slate of award season hopefuls. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut, “The Lost Daughter,” stars Olivia Coleman in a disorienting thriller adapted from the novel by Elena Ferrante. “Don’t Look Up” is an apocalyptic satire with a cast that ranges from Leonardo DiCaprio to Ariana Grande.

The first film released by Netflix this December is Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog,” a western set in Montana in the mid-1920s.

Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Phil Burbank, a rancher who has a rocky relationship with his brother. George Burbank, played by Jesse Plemons, is much quieter and kind-hearted than his brother. One day, the Burbank ranch rides into town and feasts at a restaurant run by Rose Gordon, played by Kirsten Dunst. Her reserved son, Peter, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, waits on the men and is subjected to Phil’s harsh jabs at Peter’s lisp and effeminate mannerisms. George falls in love with Rose and asks for her hand in marriage. As George brings her back to the Burbank ranch, Phil becomes increasingly hostile while trying to suppress deeper seeded feelings of romantic connection.

Adapted from Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel, “The Power of the Dog,” is an emotionally reserved story of masculinity and jealousy. The character of Phil Burbank is  as intimidating as he is well-loved by his fellow cowboys, but the first interaction between him and Peter plays out like a thriller. 

So much of the film is about suppression and lashing out. The film simmers with scenes that deprive specific characters of saying how they truly feel. Just a glare from Phil can put fear in the hearts of the audience. When Rose becomes quieter and quieter at a dinner party, it is clear that this house is not a home for her.

The ghost of Phil’s mentor, Bronco Henry, haunts the Burbank ranch. A corner of the barn is dedicated to a vigil for Bronco, with his saddle still polished often by Phil. When he does rub it down, there is an intimacy that hints there was something more to Phil’s relationship with Bronco. 

Could that be why Phil acts so callous to anyone that isn’t hyper-masculine? Is Phil intensely repressing his homosexual feelings? His fostering relationship with Peter can be seen as a way to return to Phil’s glory days, or is he acting out against Rose who he feels is taking over his home? So much of the film is left open to interpretation, so much is left unspoken. When things are unspoken, the soundtrack deepens the drama.

The score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood is typically phenomenal. The lead guitarist turned composer is quickly becoming one of the strongest voices in modern film music today. The echoing french horns in the song “The Ravine” feel ominous and match Peter’s feeling of getting swallowed up by the sprawling western landscapes. Then the solo violin in “West Alone” contrasts that with a feeling of mourning, it reveals Phil’s emotional core as he longs for the good old days when he wasn’t alone. 

Some of the pieces of music like “Miss Nancy Arrives” recounts Greenwood’s work on previous films. Those harshly played cello strings were also used in his score for “There Will Be Blood.”

“The Power of the Dog” is one of the best films released this year. The story challenges the hypermasculine values of the classic western genre. If this is any indication of what the rest of Netflix releases will be like for this year, they are setting themselves up for more Oscar nominations this awards season.

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