“For what kind of man would I be if I did not help my mother? If I did not save her?”
Genre: Westerns With A Complex Underbelly
Release Date: 2021
Where I Watched: Netflix
Gist: Brothers Phil and George Burbank have been riding the range together for years. They’ve got everything; a wealthy family, a ranch that pulls in even more dough, and plenty of ranch hands to help them succeed in just about anything they set their minds to. Phil is the consummate cowboy with an Ivy League education…and a misogynistic, grandiose air that’s thisclose to sadism. George is everything Phil isn’t; quiet, sweet, and kinda educated, with a penchant for things Phil doesn’t seem to enjoy, like kindness and bathing. When George decides to wed local widow Rose, bringing her and her son Peter to the Burbank ranch, Phil is less than pleased. In fact, Phil makes it his top priority to make Rose’s life a living hell. Happy ever after? Not even.
Talky talk: This is a film I should have pounced on the second it hit Netflix. But I hemmed and hawed. “Meh, I’m not feeling a Western right now.” “I should probably take a look at a holiday movie instead, ’tis the season.” “Ooh – Wheel of Time just dropped a new episode!” I had a million reasons to lodge this firmly in my Laters Babe Queue. I was an idiot. Because Dog is incredible. The story takes its sweet time to get from plot point to plot point, but as with Bone Tomahawk and Unforgiven, if you give this film your time, you will be rewarded with a wicked yet satisfying tale.
Firstly, the direction is fantastic. Jane Campion delivers another beautifully shot, deep-dive psychological piece that fits right next to The Piano and Portrait of A Lady. Dog definitely has the feel of a Campion film, with Gorgeous Landscapes, a minimalist score that focuses on violins, and a whole lot of showing rather than telling. Oh my God those wide shots took my breath away every single time; take a moment to just sink into the gorgeous cinematography. Thank you, DP Ari Wegner.
Dog is based on the 1967 novel by Thomas Savage, and that man’s last name pretty much sums up the bulk of the plot. Phil is absolutely savage when it comes to his new family members, hating anything that feels new or different to the life he loves so well. Benedict Cumberbatch delivers a career defining performance (sorry Stephen Strange, love ya mean it), with all the venom and fire of a man who feels he’s been done wrong and wants everyone else to suffer along. This is basically Cumberbatch’s There Will Be Blood, and he is gloriously all-in. As his mirror-image brother George, Jesse Plemons plays milquetoast with a whiff of backbone. George doesn’t want to be “all alone” anymore, showcasing the rips and tears in the brothers’ relationship. Hey, probably doesn’t help that Phil constantly calls George “Fatso”, and relentlessly rubs George’s nose in the fact that Phil is much more intelligent, talented, and well everything, than his poor cinnamon roll of a brother. The performances show that this relationship has been toxic for quite some time, and the addition of two more individuals makes it combust.
Kirsten Dunst’s Rose, stuck in a damned-if-I-do-too-eary-for-Women’s-Lib rock and a hard place with Phil, so takes to drink. And Dunst delivers a quietly powerful performance that wowed me, even while my heart broke for poor Rose. And Kodi Smit-McPhee as Rose’s son Peter is a man in the wrong era; he’s too “womanish” for the American West of the early 20th Century, too caring and much too interested in things like book learning and making paper flowers. (But dayum those flowers are gorgeous y’all.) Campion focuses not on the dialogue her actors say, but the way they carry themselves, the looks they give each other, and what hides behind their eyes, most especially McPhee’s quietly tempestuous Peter. The cast does so much with a single glance, and that’s a glorious meeting of talent behind, and in front of, the camera. It’s fascinating to watch the actors work, and the settings and shots are extremely on point.
Now, this film may not be for everybody
only the sexy people. At a hiccup over two hours and no real boom-boom-pow, this “slice of life as the Wild Wild West began to wind down” story may disappoint folks looking for a film that’ll grab them by the lapels and shake ’em to death. But those who are looking to sink into a story that has a quiet menace that subtly builds to a quiet but effective climax? This Dog will definitely hunt.
Come for: The killer performances by the cast and gorgeous views of
The American West New Zealand
Stay for: A slow burn tale that twists, turns, shocks, and surprises.