REVIEW: The Power of the Dog (2021)

Benedict Cumberbatch and Kodi Smit-McPhee in Jane Campion’s THE POWER OF THE DOG — Photo: Netflix.

Directed by Jane Campion — Screenplay by Jane Campion.

Based on the 1967 Thomas Savage novel of the same name, The Power of the Dog is a western drama set in Montana in the 1920s, when the old American west had begun to morph into a new era. While we hear about automobiles and cities at the local inn, the surrounding wide-open landscape and barren mountains still feel distinctly western. It is clear that the world is changing, and some of these changing roles are exemplified in the film’s characters.

Primarily, we have the distinctly different Burbank brothers — George and Phil — who live together in a seemingly quite wealthy ranch house. George (played by Jesse Plemons), often called ‘fatso’ by his harsh brother, is soft-spoken, quiet, modest, and gentle, and he cares about the people around him. Phil is starkly different. An aggressively masculine and rude cowboy, Phil (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) is unrelenting when he meets people for the first time, but there is something beneath his hostile macho performative persona. He’s more worldly and intelligent than his behavior or appearance would lead you to believe.

Both characters are defined by their loneliness, which is manifested in different ways. Phil looks to the past for solace, as he tries to cling onto the past in a changing world. Phil constantly talks about his mentor Bronco Henry, so much so that their relationship becomes the stuff of mystery. George, on the other hand, wastes little time on the past. He wants a home and the silent comfort of stability and love.

These innate qualities are both shown for all to see when they visit the inn run by Rose Gordon (played by Kirsten Dunst), a widow just trying to keep up with the pressure of her workplace, and her creative and effeminate son Peter (played by Kodi Smit-McPhee), who later becomes fascinated by medicine and anatomy. While George eventually falls for Rose, Phil chooses to bully Peter. After George and Rose are married, the Gordons are welcomed by George to his and his brother’s ranch, but Phil’s relentless psychological abuse soon starts to get under Rose’s skin.

The Power of the Dog is the hugely celebrated and award-winning director Jane Campion’s first film in more than a decade, and she sure chose a quietly powerful story to tell. It is a rich western drama epic with a thrilling and sometimes quite ominous score from Jonny Greenwood and magnificent images of the wild environment that these characters inhabit. However, although the film is by no means inaccessible, its, admittedly, deliberate pacing may prove to prevent most audiences from connecting with the film. However, it is also the kind of film that if it grabs you, then it could inspire you to rewatch it not long thereafter. I watched it twice in two days because I wanted to see the first half of the film in a new light and recontextualize the film and its character.

It is a film that left me feeling two conflicting feelings precisely because I think the characters are brought to life extremely well. The solid performances delivered by Kirsten Dunst and the mild-mannered Jesse Plemons anchors the film in its setting, and then Smit-McPhee and Benedict Cumberbatch’s performances elevate it to something more than just a decent western film. Cumberbatch’s performance is especially remarkable. His is a complete character, and I think Cumberbatch has scenes of great nuance that can tell you so much about Phil without ever hearing him open his mouth. The Sherlock and Doctor Strange-star delivers a career-best performance in Campion’s film, in which he sells both the outer frustrations as well as the inner complexities of Phil Burbank. I’m still giving his character a lot of thought several days after first seeing the film and that is entirely because of Cumberbatch and the way Campion designed and framed him.

Campion uses Cumberbatch and his character with such precision, and she truly hammers home how abusive he can be with only a whistle or the sound of a cowboy spur moving around. Some of the film’s very best scenes feature only Smit-McPhee and Cumberbatch, but, arguably, its most memorable scene is an unforgettable musical duel between Cumberbatch and Dunst’s characters. It got under my skin, and you can imagine what it did to Dunst’s character.

It is a film that may test audiences’ patience, but it is also a film that you should give a chance. It is more than just the film the first hour tells you that it is. Without saying too much, I will say that it reminded me somewhat of Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, which also starred Kirsten Dunst, but I also think that Campion’s The Power of the Dog is a much better film. In fact, it is one of the best films of the year.

9 out of 10

– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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