The Power of the Dog (2021) Review!!

Synopsis – Charismatic rancher Phil Burbank inspires fear and awe in those around him. When his brother brings home a new wife and her son, Phil torments them until he finds himself exposed to the possibility of love.

My Take – Honestly, going into this film I had no idea what to expect. Mainly as other than the awful In the Cut (2003), I have never seen any other film helmed by filmmaker Jane Campion, including The Piano (1993), a film that defined her career, plus nor did I have any previous knowledge about Thomas Savage‘s 1967 novel upon which the New Zealand filmmaker’s latest film, after a 12 year long hiatus, is based upon. With only my love for the western genre keeping me on.

However, what surprised me is that this film turned out to be unlike any other western I have ever seen. Powered by strong performances from its sturdy cast, the film is a visually stunning slow-burn western drama that deals with both the themes of revenge and redemption, and can be both a unsettling and unnerving watching experiences for the unsuspecting viewer.

An assured piece of soulful storytelling that’s all the more elevated by exquisite camerawork and flaring score, as it dissects what came to be seen as traditional masculine roles, but shines light at what went on under the surface.

Yes, its modest premise, slow pace, soft and silent approach won’t satisfy everyone but there’s a purity and authenticity in its presentation that effortlessly manages to make the film stand out. It may not be for everyone, but it’s worth watching at least for the performances and visuals.

Set in 1925 Montana, the story follows Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch), a wealthy rancher, who patiently raises cattle with his brother George (Jesse Plemons). Though they sleep in the same room and have been driving cattle together for 25 years, the brothers couldn’t be less alike.

George is a soft-spoken man with few needs or aspirations other than wishing to not grow old alone, and lives in the shadow of his formidable brother, an educated man with a domineering personality. Phil is constantly proving how tough and macho he is by bullying others, even calling his more sensitive brother Fatso.

However things complicate between the two when George marries Rose (Kirsten Dunst), a widowed former cinema piano-player who runs a cafe with her sensitive teenage son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Viewing this as a personal affront, Phil merciless begins his cruelty towards Rose and Peter.

With the vast landscapes of New Zealand serving as backdrop for the film’s Old West setting, the story is allowed to unfurl at its own pace and comfort and offers a quiet, absorbing drama. Here, director Campion has a field day exploring the fractured psyche of her lead four piece against the picturesque backdrop of Montana by concentrating on the individual actors to tell their stories from the way they look at each other to the way. Constantly building tension, the film is both subdued and uncomfortably sexual.

But what stands out her is director Campion‘s willingness to capture the warmth and humanity in every character regardless of their intrinsic nature. Director Campion is also great at furnishing her film with queasy touches, for example, how poor Rose stumbles into the kitchen to talk to the cook Mrs Lewis (Geneviève Lemon) and maid Lola (Thomasin McKenzie) and gets regaled with weird gossip and urban myths, including one about a dead woman, whose hair continued to grow after her death, filling the coffin. You can almost feel Rose’s frisson of fear and fellow-feeling, imagining herself to be like this woman right now. So much is left unsaid, left unseen, for the audience to put together themselves.

It’s the power of suggestion that director Campion uses here, and the places the mind can go with just a small push are scarier and more meaningful than what she could ever put on the page or on film. Much of this is also thanks to the film’s visuals.

The cinematography by Ari Wegner is exceptionally beautiful, being a standout for the film. Sure, not everything clicks in the film as it laced with an odd, at times frustrating pace, and the characters of George and Rose feeling only ever half-explored at best with George in particular given a short straw once the half way mark of the film rolls around in.

Performances wise, Benedict Cumberbatch is excellent here. Here, Cumberbatch renders on screen a persona who’s both intimidating and awe-inspiring yet is at his finest when giving us a glimpse into his vulnerability. It is arguably his career-best act. It also helps that he finds brilliant support from Kirsten Dunst, who is a revelation as recently-wed Rose who turns to drink when life gets too much for her and Jesse Plemons who quietly makes his presence felt. Plemons and Dunst are a real-life couple, and their inherent sensitivity toward each other buoys a quick coupling that often strikes the sweetest notes.

Kodi Smit-McPhee also hold his own, leaving a lasting impression. In smaller roles, Thomasin McKenzie and Geneviève Lemon don’t have much to do. On the whole, ‘The Power of the Dog’ is a slow burn western anchored by its thought provoking drama and performances.

Directed – 

Starring – Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons

Rated – R

Run Time – 126 minutes

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