Jane Champion’s latest big-screen project is a haunting western that defies expectations and finally unfolds to startling, perhaps alienating effect.
Yes, The Power of the Dog wags its tail in a very careful gait, but isn’t really irritating in the way it lures you into its austere “Big Sky” Montana environs, circa 1925.
The New Zealand filmmaker and scribe whose works include (The Piano) does some of her finest work in setting up a foreboding mood, shrewdly augmented by Jonny Greenwood’s score. The production in her native land was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic with key cast members remaining on location during the lockdown.
This singular adaptation of as Thomas Savage novel which broodingly nods to the exemplary John Steinbeck novel “East of Eden” bracingly moves through its varying performers as strife takes hold.
It’s precipitated by Kristen Dunst’s widow Rose and, later, her teen son Peter Gordon, filled with deceptive quietude by Kodi Smit-McPhee relocating to a ranch run by a couple of bickering siblings. The younger one, George Burbank (Jesse Plemons), takes a strong liking to Rose, enough to quickly wed the hotelier woman whose previous spouse hung himself.
A conniving masculinity in the frontier comes by way of the other brother, Phil, filled with mocking cruelty by riveting Benedict Cumberbatch, instantly lassoing your attention, (Let Me In) uses his unmanly mien to surprise the source of much disrespect. As Peter begins to allow himself to become a ranch hand the subtext takes hold. From unconventional conflicts around brittleness and earthy wit.
Included in the apt ensemble are Thomasin McKenzie (Last Night in Soho) as well as notable characters thespians Keith Carradine and Frances Conroy. The challenging director works with her technicians, especially lensing pro Ari Wegner to vivid effect, notably in the picturesque landscapes. In a creative examination of what’s been stereotypical of a hardy genre ensures that the intimate details finely coalesce. Contentiousness and worry has led Rose to the bottle, as Dunst (Hidden Figures) and an affable Piemons convince in their ‘marginalized’ romance. To offer reference to arcs around their developing relationship.
Being tamed or fixated on the distant hills is part of allegorical resonance made all the more cogent from the driven Cumberbatch (The Courier), in an oddly compelling turn that feeds off of ethical relativism, implacability ensconce in cognition. This brutish, if beautifully braided Dog certainly has the kind of angularity to adroitly harness its power of suggestion with sweeping glory.