Film review: The Power of the Dog | Under The Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Tuesday, December 7th, 2021  

The Power of the Dog

Studio: Netflix
Director: Jane Campion

Oct 19, 2021 Web Exclusive
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The Power of the Dog is the first film in 12 years from Palme d’Or-winning director Jane Campion. It is the Centerpiece selection of this year’s New York Film Festival. It is a superbly acted, visually stunning tale of the fragile masculine ego.

Set in Montana in the 1920s, the film follows brothers Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons) who live together on a ranch. The two are different in every regard. Phil is macho and mean-spirited while George is refined and regimented. When the ranch-dwellers go to a restaurant to honor one of their deceased friends, George meets the restaurant’s chef, Rose (Kirsten Dunst). Despite Phil’s disapproval, the two fall in love and quickly get married.

From here, the film follows Phil, George, Rose and Rose’s son from a previous relationship, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), on the ranch. The main narrative is Phil’s looming, aggressive presence constantly bullying and taunting Rose and Peter while George is absent for long stretches on business trips. On its surface, The Power of the Dog is a family-centered Western, but it opens new plots to provide a true portrait of the lives of the principal characters. Contrary to how it might sound, the film is not necessarily a character study nor is it a slice-of-life story, although it has elements of both these approaches, particularly in its focus on Phil. Rather, The Power of the Dog cannot be defined by one single genre.

The Power of the Dog is most striking in how it uses the ranch setting, an isolated place surrounded by endless stretches of farmland. Once the film settles into its central story, the focus rarely leaves the confines of the ranch. This tactic not only traps the viewer in with the characters but traps the characters in as well, slowly unveiling their fears, insecurities and desires. When the film explores Phil’s character, the reveal is so gradual, the viewer can never predict his intentions or actions. This is particularly of note in the film’s second half, where Phil and Peter strike up an unexpected friendship, much to Rose’s dismay and worry.

The film’s isolated setting also explores a variety of themes. The most obvious is loneliness, which each character feels and deals with in very different ways. In Rose’s case this shows itself with her trying, and often failing, to move forward alone, particularly due to Phil’s bullying and her husband’s prolonged absences. In Phil’s case, loneliness shows itself when his hyper-masculine ego is deflated, revealing the reasons that propel him to act in the rash, selfish way he does.

While much of the film’s success is attributable to Campion’s work behind the camera, it is the film’s performances that tie everything together. Benedict Cumberbatch, in a career-defining performance, perfectly sinks into Phil’s character. He nails Phil’s threatening persona as well as his multi-dimensional personality. Dunst is incredible, most notably in handling the unraveling of her character. The biggest surprise is Smit-McPhee, who does an excellent job, particularly when his character becomes prominent in the film’s second half. He matches Cumberbatch in the scenes they share, and the two provide a solid and believable chemistry that consistently rocks the film and toys with expectations.

There are so many timeless ideas about personal struggle and identity at play in The Power of the Dog. Campion, a director and screenwriter who is known for exploring emotional depths in subtle ways, teases them out in the most effective and thoughtful way possible. (www.filmlinc.org/nyff2021/films/the-power-of-the-dog/)

Author rating: 7.5/10

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Average reader rating: 3/10



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