© 2021 Maine Public
header.jpg
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Jane Campion's Western 'Power of the Dog' may score her another Oscar nomination

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It has been 28 years since the movie "The Piano" earned Jane Campion an Oscar nomination for best director. Critic Bob Mondello says her new film, a High Plains western called "The Power Of The Dog," may make her the first woman ever to be nominated for that award twice.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Montana - well-to-do cattle ranchers George and Phil Burbank driving their herd back to the ranch.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE POWER OF THE DOG")

BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH: (As Phil) Guess this is it.

JESSE PLEMONS: (As George) What's it, Phil?

CUMBERBATCH: (As Phil) What's it? All right, Fatso. I'll tell you what it is - 25 years since our first run together - 1900 and nothing.

PLEMONS: (As George) That's a long time.

CUMBERBATCH: (As Phil) Not too damn long.

MONDELLO: The brothers Burbank still share their childhood bedroom, but aren't at all close.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE POWER OF THE DOG")

CUMBERBATCH: (As Phil) You got a sore gut?

PLEMONS: (As George) No.

CUMBERBATCH: (As Phil) You act like it pains ya (ph) to hit your two words together.

MONDELLO: As played by Jesse Plemons, George is mild, well-scrubbed, gentle - what you might call citified, though there's no city nearby. Benedict Cumberbatch's Phil, by comparison, is sneering, has no time for anything so dandified as a bath and has a keen eye for weakness. That fatso he aimed at his brother qualifies as an endearment next to the mockery he reserves for Rose, the widow who runs the local boarding house, and her delicate son Peter, who waits its tables.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE POWER OF THE DOG")

CUMBERBATCH: (As Phil) Ah. Now, gentlemen, look, see, that's what you do with the cloth.

MONDELLO: He means the napkin draped over Peter's arm.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE POWER OF THE DOG")

KODI SMIT-MCPHEE: (As Peter) It's really just for wine drips.

CUMBERBATCH: (As Phil) Oh. Got that boys? Only for the drip.

(LAUGHTER)

MONDELLO: Peter is momentarily paralyzed by that mocking lisp.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE POWER OF THE DOG")

CUMBERBATCH: (As Phil) Now get us some food.

MONDELLO: George stays after to apologize to Rose, and something sparks. A few weeks later, Phil gets a shock.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE POWER OF THE DOG")

CUMBERBATCH: (As Phil) What 'cha (ph) doing get mixed up with her?

PLEMONS: (As George) We were married Sunday.

MONDELLO: Which brings Rose and Peter both into the big gothic ranch house and into Phil's toxic orbit. Peter, who's played with haunting hesitancy by Kodi Smit-McPhee, can be sent off to college, but Kirsten Dunst's timid Rose...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE POWER OF THE DOG")

KIRSTEN DUNST: (As Rose) He's just a man; only another man

MONDELLO: ...Is trapped. It's not hard to see what attracted writer-director Jane Campion to the novel she's adapted here by Thomas Savage. Like "The Piano," it has wide open spaces, a sensitive man, a cruel man and a single mother with child - oh, and an instrument in the parlor that Rose practices, hoping to impress her husband; practicing that can be subverted by Phil from upstairs.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONDELLO: Not since "Deliverance" has the sound of a banjo felt so unnerving. It would be hard to overstate how unsettling Benedict Cumberbatch is as Phil. And while his abrasive, resentful performance is the one you'll talk about, Campion makes sure it's matched by real-life partners Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst, who give George and Rose...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE POWER OF THE DOG")

DUNST: (As Rose) ...Three - and back - one, two three. Told you I'd teach you.

MONDELLO: ...A connection that's entirely persuasive, heartfelt.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE POWER OF THE DOG")

DUNST: (As Rose) What is it, George?

PLEMONS: (As George) Oh, you just (sighs) - I wanted to say how nice it is not to be alone.

MONDELLO: Dunst lets you read Rose's anxiety in every sideways glance about being good enough for her wealthy husband, about surviving her menacing brother-in-law, about her son's safety.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE POWER OF THE DOG")

DUNST: (As Rose) Peter.

MONDELLO: Smit-McPhee's Peter wears white shirt and sneakers, a Stetson that's too big and an ego that feels several sizes too small. You fear for him. And a film that seemed at first to be about a woman coming between two brothers turns into something far more complex - a study of toxic masculinity, of isolation, physical and psychological. And with a harrowing snap, Campion brings it all together in a final few scenes that make "The Power Of The Dog" powerful indeed.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLING)

MONDELLO: I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF JONNY GREENWOOD'S "25 YEARS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.