FOR THOSE OF YOU WHO HAVE NOT YET SEEN THE POWER OF THE DOG, THIS IS A NON-SPOILER REVIEW.
It’s not easy to pinpoint exactly what type of film Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog actually is. Is it an old-fashioned western with a bit of an edge? Is it a twisted romantic drama? Or Is it a worthy companion piece to Brokeback Mountain? I wasn’t sure what I was watching, even halfway through the film. But, what I was 100% sure about, was that I was captivated the entire runtime. The Power of the Dog is a showcase for one of the finest filmmakers of our time, at the height of her ability.
WHAT IS THE POWER OF THE DOG ALL ABOUT?
The film follows Benedict Cumberbatch’s Phil Burbank, a successful rancher who is well-educated and magnetic, but also cruel and calculating. He runs their cattle ranch with his younger brother George (Jesse Plemons), who is kind, but soft-spoken and lacking personality. The two have only had each other, going through the motions, until everything changes when George meets a widow in town named Rose (Kirsten Dunst). He falls in love with her and they quickly marry. Rose moves into George and Phil’s home with her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), but they soon realize that they are not necessarily welcome there. Phil is not happy with the sudden change in his life and will stop at nothing, to make their life a living hell. But, he is harboring a secret, and soon a battle of wits and cunning takes form that leads to shocking revelations.
HOW IS THE SLOW BURN APPROACH? AND ARE THESE CHARACTERS INTERESTING?
Let’s start off by saying that The Power of the Dog is a deliberately slow-paced film. Campion allows the audience to soak in and live in each moment with these characters. But, it continues to build upon itself, growing in tension with each passing second, aided by the vigorous score from Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead fame. There will be people who think the movie drags on without any clear purpose, but if you give it your time and attention… the rewards are boundless.
I must say though, if these characters weren’t so fascinating, the film might not have been so utterly watchable. Luckily, this quartet of players has so much to offer in terms of development, you will find yourself furiously trying to peel back their many layers to find out who they actually are. While this is most certainly a character study of Cumberbatch’s Phil Burbank, you could also say the film acts as a study on all four of these complicated people. While you could simplify these characters with one word; you can also look deeper within them to search for why they are the way that they are.
Phil is a man’s man, who finds strength in his cronies who look up to him, who fuel his fire and tyrannical sensibilities. There’s George, who has always been looked down on and harassed by his brother (who calls him ‘fatso’), yet still is able to harness kindness in his heart; hence his ability to finally be able to find love. We have Rose, who finds strength from her son after the death of her husband, yet finds herself weak when it comes to her confidence within. And lastly, there is Peter, who at first seems feeble and naive, but is far more than meets the eye.
HOW IS THE ALL-STAR CAST?
The cast here is exceptional; there truly is no weak link. The Oscar buzz surrounding these performers is so well deserved, it would be a shame if any one of the four were left out of the conversation. Benedict Cumberbatch is playing so against type, that you honestly forget it’s him in this role. Phil is no Doctor Strange, Alan Turing, or Sherlock Holmes. He is a nasty piece of work that can be diabolical and manipulative… but, he also has a softer, less closed-off side that Cumberbatch is able to convey, as well. This is a very complicated, conflicted character and he is able to pull off every facet of his personality with precision.
Dunst (who I am honestly not the biggest fan of) has never been better here. She is a character that you feel such pain for and wants to see her get through it all in one piece. Plemons is able to inject life and earnestness into a character that could have been easily written off as one-note. And there is honestly no other actor who I could see playing Peter, besides Smit-McPhee. His “goggling” eyes as Phil calls them and his bone-thin exterior are the perfect facade for a character brimming with cunning and wisdom within. These four performers are playing a juggling act with these characters, constantly changing and evolving…and it is a real sight to be seen.
WHAT TYPE OF FILM IS THE POWER OF THE DOG?
So, let’s go back to the question at the beginning of this review… What type of film is The Power of the Dog, exactly? You could say it’s an old-fashioned western, it certainly feels like one. But, you could also say it’s an anti-western, as well. All of the themes of the genre are turned on their head and inspected with razor-sharp focus… like toxic masculinity, heroism, good vs. evil, repression, etc. You could also say it’s a romantic drama; there is most definitely romance and drama in this film… but, not in the typical way that the audience would expect. Is it another gay cowboy movie? Well, it deals with the idea that society has and always will be hellbent on homophobia… but, it’s not blatant or obvious in reaching that conclusion.
What The Power of the Dog is, I am sure of… is a melancholic, devastating and dynamic cinematic journey that deserves to be seen. By the time you reach the haunting ending, I assure you that you will have a clearer idea of what our writer/director is trying to accomplish with her film. And why it is such a powerful one. Not only will you be peeling back the layers of these characters, but also the layers of this story and every moment that took place within it. Now, let’s just hope Jane Campion doesn’t wait another twelve years to make her next film.
The Power of the Dog will be streaming on Netflix on December 1st, 2021.
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