Review: Scenery captivates in 'The Power of the Dog'

Filmmakers have always enjoyed showcasing broad vistas in movies.

More than other backdrops, the majestic fields and mountains become characters in stories that movies tell. Something about the scope and hue of blue skies enables creators to intensely focus on how characters confront challenges. And the best of films uses these broad backgrounds to frame intense personal stories.

Moviemaker Jane Campion, who made the scenery of New Zealand a significant part of “The Piano” in the 1990s, captures the clarity of the land to emphasize the uncertainty of relationships in the breathtaking “Power of the Dog,” a leading candidate for end-of-year honors. Set against the beautiful mountains of Montana in the 1920s, chance encounters evolve into life-changing exchanges as people challenged by life look for ways to find strength. The film reminds us what a director can accomplish when confident in the material, the actors and the creative vision of story to be told.

Against this breathtaking background, writer/director Campion introduces a quartet of searching souls. Two brothers with means and money – Phil and George – meet a widowed inn owner with little – Rose – during a cattle drive. When George asks Rose to marry, and move to the ranch he shares with Phil, she brings her teenage son, Peter, who struggles with his present and future. Tension immediately builds as Phil reacts to what people entering his world may mean to his world. And slowly begins to wonder if what he has denied through life could actually define his life.

As layered as the story may sound, adapted from the 1967 novel by Thomas Savage, Campion embraces the ambiguity of the relationships to ask telling questions that drive the film. What in her past must Rose overcome to give herself and George a chance to be happy? What ambitions and feelings must Peter address to discover who he is and how he should live? And what circumstances once shaped Phil’s anger, and what now triggers his abusive behavior, as a broken man desperately tries to find ways to heal?

Campion could have filmed such a story against any exterior. That she chose the mountains of New Zealand – in settings that make us feel we are in rural Montana in the 1920s – gives the film a sense of isolation that intensifies what emotions people explore. The director makes a setting filled with air feel claustrophobic as her cameras capture what happens inside souls who want to understand why they think and act in ways that can connect and destroy.

Filling these vistas are four award-worthy performances. Benedict Cumberbatch reveals an intensity we have not before experienced as the driven but threatened Phil; Kirsten Dunst pierces the veneer of Rose to reveal layers of the past; Jesse Plemons brings a calm kindness to George and Kodi Smit-McPhee beautifully unveils the world Peter tries to understand.
Thanks to Campion’s words and images, their performances and film soar into movie memory. After what feels like months without a “movie-movie” to savor, “The Power of the Dog” tells a story like only a movie can.

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Film Summary: The Power of the Dog


Content: High. Jane Campion's breathtaking adaptation of the Thomas Savage novel soars into movie history.
Entertainment: High. As serious as the film's content, writer/director Campion creates easy access into complex characters.
Message: High. As the film explores how people can deny, deceive and discover, Campion offers a meaningful look into human fragility.
Relevance: High. Any opportunity to experience a moviemaker tell a story in such a beautiful way makes a visit to the movies worthwhile.
Opportunity for Dialogue: High. After you share this film with your older children, talk about what can get in the way of anyone discovering and living truth.

“The Power of the Dog” runs 2 hours and 6 minutes and is Rated R for brief sexual content and full nudity. It is not a film for the entire family. The film is showing in theaters and on Netflix.