Poison and Patriarchy: ‘The Power of the Dog’ Screens at VIFF Centre

What’s Kirsten Dunst’s codeword for something “awards-worthy” among her best buds? Shrimps. As in: “This movie is pretty shrimpy,” or: “We deserve lots of shrimps for this.”
Dunst’s new movie, The Power of the Dog, is a cert for the shrimp cocktail circuit kicking into gear as awards-season hype builds in December and January.
Last month at the New York Film Festival (and online for everyone else), the director Sofia Coppola interviewed The Power of the Dog director Jane Campion. The latter, of course, was only the second woman ever nominated in the Best Director category at the Academy Awards, for The Piano, in 1993.

Ten years later, Coppola became the third (for Lost in Translation), and it wasn’t surprising that their conversation was mutually effusive and justifiably celebratory: these artists continue to inspire each other, as well as everyone else. They also have Dunst in common: she starred in Coppola’s first film, The Virgin Suicides, and as the feature role in Marie Antoinette.
It’s not much to crow about, but the movie industry has upped its game in the wake of #MeToo, and four more women have followed in their footsteps in recent years. Chloé Zhao actually won the Oscar last year, for Nomadland, which is more recognition than the Academy bestowed on either Coppola or Campion.

It will be a shock if the New Zealander doesn’t collect another nomination when the Oscars roll around again in March, and Dunst too for that matter. The Power of the Dog has won rave reviews on the festival circuit, and critics have recognized it as a landmark in the history of the western.

Also starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons (Dunst’s husband in real life), it’s set on a Montana cattle ranch in the 1920s, but feels like it could have taken place decades earlier.

Westerns may be historical, at least nominally, but they’re also oddly timeless and elemental in the manner of Greek myth. The novel on which the film is based, by Thomas Savage, has been optioned by filmmakers before — Paul Newman tried to make it in the 1970s — but Campion is the first to pull it off, presumably because of the taboo-breaking nature of the narrative.
No spoilers here — The Power of the Dog is in some respects a mystery thriller, and a teasingly subtle, cryptic one at that — but fair to say that Dunst plays Rose, a single mother, who is courted by kind-hearted George Burbank (Plemons), co-owner with his brother Phil (Cumberbatch) of an expansive but remote ranch.

There are similarities here with Ada, the single mother/mail-order bride played by Holly Hunter in The Piano. In fact, Rose also is bestowed with a piano, though her gifts do not compare with Ada’s. And while Ada was seduced by the rough-hewn Baines (Harvey Keitel), the dynamics in Power are more complicated.

Phil is, on the surface, a brutal, boorish bully — and, it seems, jealous of his brother’s success with Rose. But it turns out Phil is also more intellectually accomplished, an Ivy League scholar who has hidden his brains and sensitivity beneath a carefully constructed front of machismo.
Dunst pulls out all the stops as Rose, whose plight is inescapably dire for all the thoughtful ministrations of George. But it’s Cumberbatch’s self-loathing and frankly despicable Phil who cuts deepest. What at first blush seems to be a set up for a romantic triangle takes an unexpected curve.

This is a film about poison and patriarchy. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that it’s taken a woman to make a western interrogating the insidious nature of toxic masculinity. It’s just a crying shame it’s taken the genre the best part of a century to reach this point.
Likely Campion will get her fill of shrimps over the next few months, and Dunst and Cumberbatch, too. But if Campion’s career shows anything, it’s that it’s better to wait and dedicate yourself to telling the stories you believe in, even if it takes a decade or more to get it done.

‘The Power of the Dog’ is playing exclusively at VIFF Centre now through early December. More information and tickets at viff.org.

Written by Tom Charity for TheTyee.ca