The Power of the Dog movie review: Benedict Cumberbatch-led Western brims with foreboding and erotic tension

  • The Power of the Dog movie review: Benedict Cumberbatch and Kirsten Dunst star in Jane Campion's first movie in 12 years.
The Power of the Dog movie review: Benedict Cumberbatch in a scene from the film.
The Power of the Dog movie review: Benedict Cumberbatch in a scene from the film.
Updated on Dec 01, 2021 07:17 PM IST
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By Devarsi Ghosh

Jane Campion’s repressed protagonists wrestle with desire that assumes transgressive power usually due to societal mores and circumstances. Her heroines are often shaped or haunted by their childhood memories. Her films tell us that masculinity is often a performance. With the exception of her last film Bright Star (2009), in which both the hero and heroine carried the story, her protagonists are always women, reconciling the need to be vulnerable and the need to be assertive.

Campion’s latest film, The Power of the Dog has all these elements, except for one crucial difference. For the first time, Campion’s sole protagonist is a man. The Netflix release is based on the 1967 Western novel of the same name by Thomas Savage. The setting is as testosterone-powered as it can get: an early 20th century American ranch, packed with rugged, greasy cowboys. The ranch belongs to charismatic, ultra-macho ranch owner Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his baby brother, George (Jesse Plemons), a teddy bear in both appearance and disposition. Phil is highly feared and respected. George is like furniture in the room. Phil calls George “fatso” and pushes him around. Plemons expresses George’s years of resentment with the finest of micro-expressions.

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Looming over the film is a character we never see but who shapes its events. Years ago, one Bronco Henry taught Phil and George how to be cowboys. Phil is sentimental about the late Bronco Henry for reasons that are slowly revealed. Phil’s attempts to be a Bronco Henry-like father figure to his brother turned out to be barely successful. Things heat up when Phil finds his perfect student in Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), the son of widow Rose (Kirsten Dunst) whom George marries and brings home, much to Phil’s chagrin. Phil thinks Rose is a gold-digger, and takes special pleasure in bullying her to tears. These parts reminded me of Campion’s first film Sweetie (1989), in which the eponymous half-crazy heroine drove her sibling mad and kept the entire family on their toes.

Unlike Campion’s previous films, in which the heroine slowly gathers strength to stand up to the man imposing himself, here, all the spunk is transferred from the woman to her son. As Rose, Dunst spends the entire film being miserable, and it’s honestly an admirable performance, but nothing we haven’t seen from her before, especially after her performance in Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, for which she won the Best Actress award at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. The dark horse of the movie is Smit-Mcphee. His Peter is young, slender, effete, artistic, everything that Phil despises. But when an accidental encounter brings them close, Phil once again tries to be Bronco Henry, this time with Peter.

Kodi Smit-Mcphee is the dark horse of The Power of the Dog.
Kodi Smit-Mcphee is the dark horse of The Power of the Dog.

These sections of the movie are filled with foreboding and dark erotic tension, heightened by Jonny Greenwood’s ominous score. Although the brute Phil and the androgynous Peter appear to be polar opposites, both are cruel and vicious in their own ways. Peter, like Campion’s slow-burn screenplay, slowly coils himself around Phil’s mind. The denouement, however, doesn’t soar. And the one thing I hated in the movie was Campion’s decision to explain the meaning of film’s title near the end. It reminded me of how the meaning of the title The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) was awkwardly explained in its final minutes. Why can't the beautiful and mysterious words The Power of the Dog just hang in the air?

This is a very well-made, sensual, and yet rough film. The creation of Phil's character is fantastic. Right from the first scene, the Burbank house reverberates with thump of Phil’s cowboy boots; the sound of leather hitting wood plus the metallic clang of the spurs. You immediately know you need to tread lightly with this man.

But later, in the privacy of his stable, when Phil polishes Bronco Henry’s saddle, his heavy breathing, the sound of his hands caressing the leather, and the close-ups of his gentle fingers, immediately turn him into a sad, complex, lonely man.

The Power of the Dog, strangely, lacks the quirkiness and visual flair of Campion’s cinema, as we know it. It is too formal and poised. Is it possibly because The Power of the Dog is her first film in 12 years? Is it because her television miniseries Top of the Lake: China Girl (2017) received poor critical notice? Is it because this is her first work set in an overwhelmingly masculine milieu? Whatever the reason may be, I am just glad Jane Campion is back.

The Power of the Dog
Director: Jane Campion
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee

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Saturday, May 21, 2022