The power of the dog: a five-star “disturbing melodrama”

Whatever the answer to these troubling questions, Phil’s troubles are exacerbated when George announces that he has married Rose (Kirsten Dunst), the shy and widowed owner of a nearby hotel. Not only will she move into the family home, but her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) will also stay while on vacation at college. And if George doesn’t match Phil’s image of how a breeder should behave, the lean, cheeky, artistic Peter is much worse. The last time a cowboy was so upset by an intruder in his house was Woody in Toy Story when Buzz Lightyear moved in.

It is as if the simmering disgust could escalate into violence at any moment. But Campion, who wrote as well as directed, lets us guess. Like Rose, we’re constantly on edge, trapped in a dark, drafty mansion where we’re always watched over by either a poisonous brother-in-law or a stuffed, mounted animal head. Rather than rushing along the plot, Campion immerses the viewer in a world that seems creepy to the point of being supernatural, but also completely real. Much of the film is shot in natural light, with many sultry close-ups of sweat and grime. Although it was made in New Zealand, one would think its Old West buildings had stood for years on the bare Montana landscape. The actors’ riding, stringing and, yes, bull castration techniques seem so easy it must have taken weeks of effort to train them. And the characters have the eccentric habits and hobbies of real people rather than Western stereotypes: just when you think you know them, you’re surprised by a scholarly reference to ancient Rome, a brief appearance of household furniture from doll, or a sudden angry hula-hoop fight.

What’s unique about The Power of the Dog is that it initially appears to be an epic western, but it becomes a brooding gothic melodrama in which relationships change and long-buried secrets surface. Its slow-burning psychological mysteries may frustrate some viewers. But others will be gripped by how Campion twists the conventions of American border drama: The fact that his edgy score is by Jonny Greenwood isn’t the only thing he has in common with There Will Be Blood.

It’s a film that shines with intelligence, and if the plot isn’t clear until the very last scene, well, it’s worth the wait. When that scene arrives, the purpose of each previous scene becomes clear, leaving you wanting to go back to the beginning and review everything.

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