The Power Of The Dog: a slow-burning Western (MA15+) by Richard Jones


I’ve long been a fan of Benedict Cumberbatch, especially from his portrayal of World War 2 mathematician ace, Alan Turing. Turing, using his great cryptanalyst skills, deciphered the German military’s Enigma code from Britain’s secret spy base at Bletchley Park. And Cumberbatch portrayed him magnificently. 

I wasn’t as keen on the Sherlock Holmes TV series where Cumberbatch, as Holmes, seemed uncomfortable in the home scenes with Dr Watson and housekeeper Mrs Hudson and even more uncomfortable in his violin-playing sessions.

But here he’s great as abrasive and bullying Montana ranch owner Phil Burbank who runs a very prosperous property with his more reserved and courteous brother George (Jesse Plemons). It’s the mid-1920s and Oscar-nominated director Jane Campion has George out riding with his ranch hands rounding up cattle wearing a beautiful jacket, collar and tie. The ranch hands, incidentally, get on well with Phil who they seem to feel fits in better into the Montana landscape than the impeccably dressed George.

Then everything changes when the whole crew ends up for a meal at an isolated ‘roadhouse’. It’s where widowed Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and her son Peter (Kodie Smit-McPhee) run the kitchen.

Phil bullies the youthful Peter, but George tries to shield Rose from his brother’s cruel tongue and lends a helping hand in the kitchen to Rose.

Some time later, George ends up marrying the widowed innkeeper so she and Peter become part of the extended family. It’s when Rose and Peter move into the Burbank household that tensions escalate. Phil has no time for the academically-inclined Peter and tries to stir up drama between his mother and George. He secretly spies on Rose when she slips out the back to consume hefty doses of whisky. The household tensions have almost broken her.

But then comes a dramatic change. Peter learns that Phil revered a former head ranch-hand, Bronco Henry, and taps into the skills the now deceased boss-man had handed down. Phil is even more chuffed when the two stand outside the huge stables gazing at the mountain range in the distance.

“What can you see there?” asks the boss. “Well those bigger ranges resemble a crouching dog,” the young man replies.

Phil is delighted. None of his ranch hands had seen anything.

His attitude towards Peter completely alters. So he begins work on an intricate twine: he starts to plait a lassoo for the young man. And they go out together deep into the mountain canyons in search of cow hide from dead cattle for Phil’s twine.

On one such excursion the now pleasant ranch owner cuts one hand and wrist as they’re skinning a cow, cuts which end up some time later becoming a virulent anthrax infection. George drives the rapidly declining Phil into the nearest town to seek medical assistance as the movie winds down to its ultimately sad ending.

The film has been nominated for no less than 12 Academy Awards.

These include Cumberbatch for Best Actor, Actress in a Supporting role Kirsten Dunst, and two in the Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Jesse Plemons and Kodi Smit-McPhee. Naturally New Zealander-turned-Aussie film-maker Jane Campion is up for an Oscar as Best Director while the  movie was listed among 10 candidates for Best Picture. There’s an additional six nominations for technical skills including cinematography, production design, adapted screenplay and music (original score).

We’ll know how everything pans out when the Academy Awards ceremony is screened next month, but it seems certain those associated with The Power of the Dog will come away with a swag of Oscars.

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