The Power of the Dog is several things at once: an upending of long-held western tropes about tough guys and masculinity, and a psychological study of complex characters. But also, and perhaps most assuredly, it’s a reaffirmation of Jane Campion’s status as a top-tier filmmaker. As her first film on the big screen after a 12-year absence since Bright Star (2009), The Power of the Dog continues to explore one of Campion’s usual themes: longing.
Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his brother George (Jesse Plemons) are wealthy ranch-owners living in 1920s Montana. Despite being complete opposites (Phil is a tough, cold, loud cowboy; George is a quiet, kind man who handles their business concerns), the siblings seem inseparable. They even sleep in the same bedroom! That is until George meets Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), the owner of a bed-and-breakfast the brothers stay at after a cattle drive. George soon becomes smitten with Rose, while Phil bullies Rose’s gangly son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee).
When Rose and George decide to get married, young Peter moves into the Burbank brother’s home, where it becomes clear Rose hasn’t been welcome by her new brother-in-law Phil. But in Campion’s take on the western mythos, not everything is as it seems, for that would be too easy. Phil and Peter develop an odd relationship, somewhat mirroring that of Phil and his dead mentor Bronco Henry. Phil mentions Henry all the time and even keeps a garment of his on him; and although the film never outright says that Phil and Bronco were gay lovers, it’s heavily implied.
Peter, although hesitant, takes a liking to being brought under Phil’s wing, despite the fact Phil keeps terrorising his mother. Or maybe it’s because of his bullying that Peter wants to get closer to Phil. Phil and Rose long for a time from before—Phil’s past with Bronco and Rose’s life before moving into the Burbank house. George and Peter long for a time that has yet to happen—George for a settled-down life with his wife, Peter for a time when he and his mother can move about in peace. All four characters are desperately yearning for a different situation.
Cumberbatch turns in his greatest performance yet, one that should put him at the forefront of the ‘Best Actor’ race at the Academy Awards. It’ll be tough for him to beat some of the showier performances out there this year, but his work as a tortured, and tortuous, figure deserves recognition. As does the supporting work of Dunst and Smit-McPhee, both of whom transform dramatically, but gradually, over the course of the film. Dunst begins as a composed, hard-working business owner into an alcoholic, manic-depressive housewife. Smit-McPhee starts out as an odd, out-of-his element kid into something more… sinister.
As usual, Plemons provides steady support work here as well. He’s not as fiery or funny as he’s been in other, bigger roles, but he does a good job. His streak of appearing in ‘Best Picture’ Oscar nominees should extend to a fifth consecutive year (and six of the last nine!) following roles in The Post (2017), Vice (2018), The Irishman (2019), and Judas and the Black Messiah (2021). However, this could finally be the first Best Picture-winning film on the list.
The Power of the Dog certainly has the ingredients to become a ‘Best Picture’ winner. Technically, it’s impressive. With her native New Zealand standing in for the mountain valleys of Montana, Campion and cinematographer Ari Wegner frame the ranch as simultaneously beautiful and foreboding. Composer Jonny Greenwood from Radiohead also comes through with his second impeccable score of the year, following his work on the Princess of Wales biopic Spencer (2021).
This film also has a patience rarely afforded to modern-day cinema. The movie’s key information, which is more psychologically focused than on the plot, is doled out slowly overeats 126-minute runtime. The tight focus on only the four main characters allows for the story to breathe. Every emotional beat is earned. And by the end, audiences leave with as many things to unpack as the characters do. You don’t necessarily leave with lingering cliffhangers or plot twists to think about, but with food for thought.
UK • AUSTRALIA • USA • CANADA • NEW ZEALAND | 2021 | 126 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Cast & Crew
director: Jane Campion.
writer: Jane Campion (based on the novel by Thomas Savage).
starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Thomasin McKenzie, Keith Carradine & Genevieve Lemon.