The Power of the Dog: NYFF 2021 Review

Year: 2021

Runtime: 126 minutes

Director: Jane Campion

Writers: Jane Campion, Thomas Savage (based on his novel of the same name)

Actors: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Thomasin McKenzie, Keith Carradine, Frances Conroy

By Tom Moore

Director Jane Campion’s adaptation of Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel “The Power of the Dog”(2021) creates an engaging modern western that explores themes of masculinity and sees Benedict Cumberbatch at his best.

Campion immerses viewers into the story’s Montana setting with how absolutely stunning it is. Although the film was actually filmed in New Zealand, the landscape matches exactly what you would envision in an open range surrounded by towering mountains. The blend of cinematographer Ari Wegner’s capturing of the vast visual landscape of the film’s central ranch and the remarkable western score from Jonny Greenwood creates this full experience that comes from looking at the incredible setting. Greenwood’s score is really top notch here with the ways it instantly fits into the western genre and he’s already a frontrunner, alongside Wagner, for top awards in their respective areas.

Within this beautifully realized Montana farmland is the story of a prideful masculine rancher named Phil Burbank (Cumberbatch) instilling fear and torment into his brother George’s (Jesse Plemons) new wife Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and stepson Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) after they come to live at the ranch to Phil’s dismay. Cumberbatch is in an all-new form in “The Power of the Dog” as he evokes the dark masculine attitude of Phil in a brooding and uncompromising fashion. With every stride of his bow-legged walk moving towards someone with a distinct sense of purpose or anger, you can feel yourself tensing up and it embodies the sense of power and fear Phil tries to instill in everyone he can through his overly masculine approach to life.

It’s certainly easy to peg Phil as this horrific villain that’s made crueler and more unrelenting through Cumberbatch’s performance as he terrorizes Rose and Peter during their stay. Early on, you can tell that there’s already a power struggle and unresolved tension between Phil and George as Phil continually disrespects George by making fun of his weight and caring attitude. Phil feels even more disrespected by George not only marrying Rose, but bringing her and Peter, who is more effeminate and protective of his mother, to the ranch. You can’t help but almost laugh in disbelief at how petty and antagonistic Phil is towards Rose and Peter as he tries to gaslight them and make their lives a living hell. It’s the most devious and tormenting performance Cumberbatch has ever delivered, but that doesn’t mean that Phil is a full-blown villain.

Rather, he’s a heightened version of the sense of masculinity that’s desperate to stay afloat in this ranching environment. Phil’s tough masculine front can be seen throughout the other ranch hands, and it’s created this damaging environment where respect is earned from puffing out your chest the farthest and having the most demanding sounding voice. It’s not only damaging for Peter, George, and Rose because they have to endure Phil’s wrath, but also Phil because he’s forced to hide himself behind this masculine front. There’s a point where Peter discovers Phil’s true sexuality that not only opens up how Phil is self-tortured in the way that he’s forced to conceal himself in this perpetuation of masculinity, but also gives more understanding as to why Phil terrorizes Rose and Peter so much as they can be open with who they are, as well as George because he can feel a sense of love that Phil can’t in this environment. Phil is an incredibly complex character that’s only made more intriguing and deeper through Cumberbatch’s award-worthy performance.

There’s also some great story threads, themes, and performances from Plemons, Dunst, and Smit-McPhee with their respective characters. Plemons plays a much more caring antithesis to Cumberbatch’s filthiness that’s brought out even more with Phil basically being covered in dirt the whole time, and there are some interesting arcs with him trying to break out of this submissive mold. The way he constantly tries to push Rose into a spotlight feels like a sign of his desperation and insecurity to stand out over his brother and it’s kind of intriguing to see that he fails. Not only does Phil terrorize Rose enough to emotionally break her down, but George is still unable to really overpower Phil and only delivers remarks without really changing anything. At first, it seemed a little odd that he just kind of vanishes in the second half of the film, but the more I think on it, maybe it’s meant to signify that even with this newfound confidence and support, George isn’t strong enough to take control in Phil’s presence.

Dunst delivers a devastating performance that embodies the damaging torture that Phil’s masculinity has on her and forces her to turn to self-destruction and break from reality. It’s legitimately heartbreaking to see someone as initially strong as a recent widow can be brought down by Phil and its something that forces Peter to act. Peter is a much more effeminate teen that makes him the unfortunate easy target of Phil’s terror and Smit-McPhee does an excellent job balancing this femininity in Peter and the more subtly masculine traits he’s shown to have and the ones that Phil tries to instill in him as he becomes a father figure to him in a sudden turn the film takes that initially feels confusing.

After all the terrorizing and torture, Phil suddenly wants to befriend and mentor Peter and it just comes out of nowhere. It just happens at the start of one of the film’s divided chapters and you’re just kind of left hanging without any sort of direction. You’re left wondering if this affection is simply a long con from Phil to turn Peter against his mother or maybe a genuine turn from Phil that would just feel way too sudden. At one point, I almost thought that things were going in a more romantic direction given Phil’s closeted sexuality, but nothing prepared me for the sudden turn the film takes with a jaw-dropping twist in the relationship. It’s a sudden change in the power dynamic that leaves you shook in the moment and leaves a lasting impression. It might even warrant a rewatch to see splashes of Peter’s subtle cunningness throughout the film and trust being built for ulterior motives.

“The Power of the Dog” is a truly fulfilling film on multiple fronts. It’s performances, Campion’s direction, stunning setting, and themes come together to create a thrilling modern western that features an engaging exploration of masculinity. There’s no doubt that “The Power of the Dog” will be a big power player when awards season comes around and don’t be surprised if Cumberbatch finds himself his first Oscar win.

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