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Review: The Power of the Dog

November 17, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

Leave it to Jane Campion, the filmmaker behind 1993’s The Piano who hasn’t directed a feature since Bright Star in 2009, to craft one of the finest explorations of so-called toxic masculinity in her stunning Western The Power of the Dog.

Masterfully directed by Campion, who understands how long a scene or shot needs to play out for maximum impact, and adapted from Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel of the same name, the film offers a simmering look at masculinity, repression and shifting power dynamics. It also serves as a powerful deconstruction of the Western genre that probes the mythos surrounding it, playing out like a darker answer to Brokeback Mountain.

Set in Montana circa 1925, the film follows the hardened Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his softer brother George (Jesse Plemons), a pair of ranchers who have devoted their lives to the family cattle ranch. When George decides to marry Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), the owner of a local inn that the brothers encounter when they go for dinner with their men, Phil sees it as a betrayal and makes it his mission to drive her away.

Rose brings along her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), an effeminate young men who is studying to be a doctor, and is an easy target for the stereotypically masculine Phil. Phil is mercilessly cruel to Peter from the time they first meet, calling him “Nancy” and mocking his lisp, seeing the son as a way to get at the mother. But is Phil’s behaviour born out of jealousy, or a compulsive need to control?

At the centre of the film are the performances, and Campion and her small but fierce ensemble cast brilliantly capture the power dance that plays out between the four main characters. Cumberbatch intimidates and mesmerizes in equal measure as Phil, a man who closely guards his emotions and expresses himself through snide, cutting comments directed at those around him. Everything he says and does is meant to unnerve and keep himself in control. Characters who are rigid and resistant to change are very much in the actor’s wheelhouse, but I have never seen him play someone this cold and cruel before, and I couldn’t take my eyes off of him.

The biggest target of Phil’s calculated harassment is Rose, and Dunst leaves her mark as a woman who starts to crack under the pressure of her brother-in-law’s constant taunts and attempts at humiliation. A brilliantly staged scene where Rose fumbles as she tries to practise the piano and Phil keeps interrupting her by joining in on the banjo becomes one of the film’s most quietly unsettling moments. Dunst also believably conveys the awkwardness of a dinner party scene, making us palpably feel how out of place and uneasy Rose feels when she is expected to entertain the high-society guests.

Plemons, for his part, has the least showy role, but he is an integral piece of the ensemble and does an excellent job of reacting to and playing off of those around him. Smit-McPhee is the breakout star here, a character who keeps his cards close to his chest, leaving us questioning his true intentions every step of the way. A scene between him and Cumberbatch in the barn, where pretty much every line of dialogue has a secondary meaning, is not only exceptionally performed but also beautifully filmed in a way that shows the balance of power passing back and forth between them.

The screenplay, adapted by Campion, is rich with symbolism and deeper meaning, as our interpretation of the title shifts as the film goes on. Phil often invokes the name of Bronco Henry, the older rancher who helped him learn to “ride” as a young man, which also serves as a powerful metaphor. Campion is wise not to show flashbacks, instead hinting at backstory through lines of dialogue and other clues in a way that is more intriguing.

Ari Wegner’s cinematography captures the breathtaking mountain landscapes (it was shot in New Zealand, standing in for 1920s Montana), while also framing the characters to show the imbalances and power shifts between them. There is a sensuality to the way that Wegner shoots Phil polishing Bronco Henry’s old saddle, and this suggestive intimacy is also felt in closeups of him pulling strands of leather against his hip to braid together a rope. But it’s a foreboding sort of sensuality, suggesting repressed feelings that carry a great deal of shame.

Jonny Greenwood’s strings-heavy score adds to the tension, incorporating Western elements that fit the genre and time period. Campion allows the film to unfold at a very deliberate pace, and The Power of the Dog is a slow-burn in the best way, with a payoff that is incredible. It comes together in the last act in a way that makes us think back on all the clues along the way, with Campion and her cast brilliantly laying the groundwork for an explosive finale. Like the volatile character played by Cumberbatch, it’s a film that simmers and simmers until it explodes, and it’s one of the year’s best.

The Power of the Dog is now playing in limited release at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, and will be available to stream on Netflix as of December 1st.

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