The Power of the Dog: A poignant neo-Western psychodrama
Benedict Cumberbatch meets the Wild West…
New Zealand filmmaker Jane Campion (Bright Star, The Piano) returns after a 12-year hiatus to helm this adaptation of Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel, The Power of the Dog. What she brings is a poignant, intensifying tale of psychological warfare accompanied by impressive performances, beautiful cinematography, and hard-hitting themes of acceptance, toxic masculinity, loss of innocence, among others.
Set against the backdrop of 1925 Montana, The Power of the Dog follows gruff and cruel rancher Phil Burbank—played by Benedict Cumberbatch in an intimidating performance—whose world is turned upside down when his kind-hearted and idealistic brother, George (played by Jesse Plemons) marries the meek and timid widow, Rose Gordon (played by Kirsten Dunst) who moves into the brothers’ ranch with her son, Peter (played by Kodi Smit-McPhee). Outraged by this union, Phil attempts to drive the newly-weds away by any means necessary, through intimidation and mockery, until he suddenly takes Peter under his wing, where intimate secrets unveil themselves to the characters.
Cumberbatch is in top form as Phil, in what is one of his most compelling performances to date, commanding fear and respect from the characters and the audience with his formidable presence. Even with a Southern drawl (his second time, after attempting it in 2013’s August: Osage County), Cumberbatch both embodies and humanizes Phil’s harshness and rough exterior, which is one of the film’s strongest links. The lone cowboy is a character trope that has existed since cinema’s humble beginnings and been done to death countless times; however, Cumberbatch adds a unique take on it by deconstructing the expected qualities of this character archetype, from the grit, stoicism, and masculinity that comes with it, and subtly conveying that beneath Phil’s bravado and tough-as-nails demeanor, lies an insecure and emotionally complicated man, who wears his manliness as a shield, thus giving us a multi-faceted protagonist/antagonist that you will both love to hate and vice-versa.
While this is Phil’s story, most of the supporting players cast a large presence in this psychodrama. Starting with Rose Gordon, Dunst is just as phenomenal here. Dunst is usually known for playing upbeat and optimistic characters, and even when typecast, she delivers an empathetic performance, playing an innocent woman who gradually gets beaten down through the course of the narrative but nonetheless attempts to remain strong in the face of Phil’s brutish treatment of her and her son. She may be broken but far from destroyed. Opposite of Dunst is her husband Jesse Plemons’ (in their second on-screen pairing since season 2 of Fargo) George, who serves as the yin to Phil’s yang, and whose kindness and naivete makes him the perfect foil to Phil, and a likeable character in this story of morally complicated individuals. Sadly however, despite dominating every scene he is in during the first half, with both of his co-stars, Plemons is mostly sidelined in the second half of the narrative, with George treated like an afterthought and becoming inconsequential from the film’s tragic payoff. Furthermore, and although Kodi Smith-McPhee’s performance as Rose’s son, Peter is very easy to overlook given his character’s quiet disposition, he nevertheless remains stellar alongside the cast with expert body language and subtle expressions that convey there is more to Peter’s character than just a seemingly timid and socially awkward boy.
Massive credit must be given to the film’s stunning cinematography (all shot in New Zealand) by Campion’s long-time collaborator, Ari Wegner along with the production design, courtesy of Grant Major (who worked on the art direction of The Lord of the Rings trilogy), showcasing breathtaking shots of Montana’s cattle country, mountains, plains, and fields, all while perfectly capturing the look and style of the 1925 Montana and transporting the viewer through the locale, and highlighting the unforgiving nature of that time on what was perceived as strength or weakness.
Above all else, The Power of the Dog excels in its thematic storytelling, invoking messages of class, motherhood, tradition, insecurity of manhood, and finding one’s masculinity, in a bleak, harsh period. While the pacing of the film has a few missteps here and there and tends to drag in some sections, particularly in its second half, its rich themes that serve as the Power’s…well, superpower never get lost, and remain front and center, making up for a stellar, intense, and thought-provoking experience from the comfort of your home.
Even with a few pacing missteps from time to time, The Power of the Dog, nevertheless remains a solid psychodrama and a return for director Jane Campion, that is kept afloat from powerful performances from Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, and Jesse Plemons, vivid cinematography, and an abundant plethora of relatable themes, that is certain to endear to viewers wanting to see a unique, fresh take on the Western film genre.
The Power of the Dog is now streaming on Netflix.