The Power of the Dog

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Benedict Cumberbatch in The Power of the Dog.
Benedict Cumberbatch in The Power of the Dog.
Photo: Kirsty Griffin/Netflix


The Power of the Dog




4/5 Stars


A domineering rancher responds with cruelty when his brother brings home a new wife and her teenage son, until the unexpected comes to pass.


Masculinity and Westerns seem to go hand in hand. After all, it is the genre of John Wayne, of James Stewart, of Clint Eastwood. But like other modern-day Westerns like Brokeback Mountain and Nomadland, The Power of the Dog similarly challenges that notion of traditional masculinity and how that presents itself in those who subscribe to it. 

Based on the 1967 novel by Thomas Savage, The Power of the Dog tells the story of two brothers, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons), who own a ranch in Montana in 1925. While on a cattle drive, they meet a widow and innkeeper, Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and her teenage son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). George is immediately taken by Rose and the two soon wed. But Phil is not happy with the arrangement, he instantly bullies Peter, and when Peter goes away to school, he torments Rose, so much so that Rose becomes an alcoholic to deal with it.

When Peter returns for the summer, he sees the state that his mother is in, but he also builds up a strange friendship with Phil. The two go riding together, and Phil teaches Peter how to make a rope out of raw hides, and he begins to share more about himself with Peter, which further alienates and upsets Rose.

The differences between the two brothers are palpable from the beginning. It's in the way they dress, in how they carry themselves, in their speech. George is more refined, quieter, dresses in suits and hats, while Phil is rougher, dirtier, much more of a talker, and dresses like a traditional cowboy. Phil idolises his former mentor, Bronco Henry, who taught him everything he knows, and who Phil sees as the pinnacle of masculinity. But the bond between the two is also extremely clear – they share a bedroom in their mansion, and even though Phil often dominates the conversation, it is a dynamic that George is used to. This is why when Rose enters the picture and threatens the co-dependent bond that the brothers have, Phil marks her as an enemy.

Even though Phil bullies and insults Rose consistently (without much support from George), he knows that the way to hurt her truly is through her son, Peter. When George first meets Rose, she is crying about how Phil insulted her son at the inn. And this is what makes Peter such a compelling character because we never really know what he's thinking. When we first meet him, we as the audience have an idea of who he is: a quiet, effeminate boy attached to his mother. But, as the film progresses, we learn more about Peter and his unshakeable sense of self and his willingness to do what needs to be done to make things better for himself and his mother.

Making a name as a refined gentleman or as everyone's favourite detective, Benedict Cumberbatch is cast completely against type, but it works so well. This might be my favourite performance of his, and in every scene, it feels like he is giving his all. Every line he delivers sounds like it was deliberated, chewed on, felt through even before he says it out loud. But the scene that stands out to me the most is one where Rose is practising the piano to play it for the governor and his wife when they come to dinner, and Phil appears at the top of the stairs menacingly playing his banjo, staring at her and taunting her. It sounds tame, but in action, it looks terrifying.

And this is the beauty of Jane Campion's directing; she can create deeply visceral scenes without the actors needing to say a word. This was famously done in her Academy Award-winning film, The Piano, where the character Ada is mute. So her pain has to be depicted through her playing of the piano or her facial expressions. There is something similar in Dunst's characterisation of Rose and Smit-McPhee's of Peter, we can only guess how they are feeling, and a lot is left up to our interpretation.

Jane Campion is a deliberate and delicate director – every shot, every scene, every movement, every word seems precisely planned out. From the voiceover narration that begins the film to the final shot, The Power of the Dog takes you on a journey. I had no idea where the film was going, but once I got to the end, I was enthralled, shocked and thinking back on what I missed in the prior scenes. The clues were all there, and that's the art behind Campion's work: she doesn't feel the need to tell you everything explicitly, but it is not that vague that it doesn't seem plausible.

Besides the excellent cast, the film has stunning cinematography with New Zealand substituting for the Montana landscape and a beautiful but haunting score. All of this helps create the ambience of a film that entirely took me by surprise at how much I enjoyed it. The Power of the Dog is an interesting study of masculinity and what it represents in a male culture and how that can support or hurt those around you.


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