The Power of the Dog

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What it’s about:

Phil and George Burbank are brothers who own and operate a family ranch in 1920s Montana. When George marries, Phil takes an immediate dislike to his new sister-in-law and bullies her, but forms a complex relationship with her son, leading them all down a dark path.

Names you might know:

The Power of the Dog stars Benedict Cumberbatch (Doctor Strange, The Imitation Game), Kirsten Durst (Spider-Man, Hidden Figures), Jesse Plemons (Friday Night Lights, Breaking Bad), and Kodi Smit-McPhee (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, X-Men: Apocalypse). It was written and directed by Jane Campion (The Piano).

Why it’s worth your time:

The Power of the Dog is a non-traditional western that offers a lead character full of meanness, but with the potential to reform his behavior, evoking universal themes such as the power struggle between men and women. Although it’s set on a ranch in Montana and employs the tropes of the western genre—horses, cattle, Indians, and wide open spaces—there’s nothing typical portrayed here. But there is plenty to entertain.

If there were a genre it fits more comfortably into, it would probably be psychological thriller. Writer and director Jane Campion returns to form with a masterful ability of suspense. There is a sense of foreboding throughout. The early scenes neatly frame the difference between brothers Phil (Cumberbatch) and George (Plemons). Unlike the kinder, simpler George, Phil is angry and moody. He’s not a friendly person. Most of the tension stems from Phil’s mercurial moods, as we wait for him to snap with George or his new wife (and real-life spouse, Durst). It takes her son Peter to find a way to connect with the brooding cowboy.

Campion’s filmmaking has so much going for it. This is a thinking person’s movie. With all the symbolism and foreshadowing you might need a second viewing to get the necessary clarity to fully understand what she’s accomplished here. The style is deliberate, but there is nothing boring about it. Despite being set a century ago, the film’s study of toxic masculinity is as topical as ever. It all builds methodically to an ending that you’ll keep replaying in your mind.

The editing is slick, delivering an emotional narrative, while the scenery of the prairie is expansive and shot with stunning cinematography that will be in the forefront for awards time. The haunting score ratchets up the tension further and keeps the audience guessing where the twisty plot is headed.

Cumberbatch’s character is layered in ways that only become fully understood by the end of the film. The performance is easily one of his best in a role unlike any he’s played before, and it places him in the top tier for Oscar glory in 2022. It’s a terrific cast overall—Kirsten Durst is solid as the newly married and constantly miserable Rose and Smit-McPhee’s Peter evolves smoothly into the moral compass of the film—but make no mistake, this is Cumberbatch’s show. He becomes so lost in Phil’s misogyny and other terrible traits that you might be slow to recognize him. Eventually, he lets us see the depth in Phil that might prove to be the character’s downfall. Perhaps one negative: there isn’t more of Plemons on screen.

The takeaway:

The Power of the Dog delivers amazing vistas and performances, some of which may still be seared in the mind after viewing. There is a uniqueness in the story and in the acting, thanks to the joint efforts of Campion and Cumberbatch.

Watch it with:

This is not a family feature, as the themes are not appropriate for youngsters. But it’s a well-developed film for adults; if you have time to invest in it, you will likely enjoy the payoff and everything else The Power of the Dog has to offer. This is a must see for Cumberbatch fans and those who like westerns, or just good filmmaking in general.

Worth noting:

The movie is based on a 1967 novel written by American author Thomas Savage. Keep a lookout for Campion’s daughter Alice Englert, who appears in the film as Buster.

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