**** out of ****
(for brief sexual content, full nudity, and language)
Released: November 17, 2021 limited; November 24 expands. December 1 on Netflix
Runtime: 126 minutes
Directed by: Jane Campion
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee
In select theaters and streaming on Netflix.
To say that The Power of the Dog is about toxic masculinity, a deconstruction of masculinity in the Western, or that it considers the genre through a queer lens would all be accurate — but also reductionist.
It’s inevitable that these contemporary talking points would be applied, but they oversimplify a story that was written over fifty years ago, one that director Jane Campion has now adapted faithfully, beautifully and honestly, free of any progressive pandering or didactic discourse.
First published in 1967, the novel was written by Thomas Savage, a Montana-based author who spent his early adult years working as a ranch hand. He was also a closeted homosexual. While it’d be a leap to suggest that The Power of the Dog is semi-autobiographical — especially considering the cruel nature of its central figure Phil Burbank, a rancher who is himself closeted — it’s certainly born of Savage’s lived experiences within his specific context.
More to the point, The Power of the Dog isn’t a platform to soapbox about social issues; it’s Savage working out the interior tensions of his own personal struggle. That’s the film Campion has made, too, exploring those tensions in provocative, unsettling ways (including deft visual metaphors, like the recurring motif of braiding a tightly-wound rope). Campion simmers a slow-burn aesthetic that is contemplative, cinematic and, paradoxically, both compassionate and sinister.
Set in 1925, The Power of the Dog takes us to the remote mountain frontier of Montana. There, brothers Phil and George Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons) work a family cattle ranch. They are polar opposites. George is reserved, measured and kind. Phil is abrasive, raucous, and intimidating, with a short temper that quickly becomes explosive. Phil is the alpha of the two, and a sadistic one at that. But what makes him particularly dangerous is how calculating he can be.
When George falls for and marries Rose, a local widow (Kirsten Dunst), she and her young adult son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) move onto the ranch with them. For Phil, they are an intrusion, and so he begins to play his manipulative mind games on each, whether to shame the effete, lisping Peter or torment the vulnerable Rose.
Patiently, Campion first plays to our expectations before slowly subverting them — not for subversion’s sake, mind you, but to uncover layers that surprise and reveal. That makes for something far more compelling than what we instinctively assume will be the general arc of this story and these characters.
Campion never foreshadows their trajectory (an astute restraint on her part), instead choosing to explore the complexities of human nature, challenging us in how we think about and engage those complexities.
For an hour or so, you may think it’s easy to make judgments about these people (even fair ones), but as the second hour unfolds you start to realize how limited and prosaic those judgments are. We’re used to seeing archetypes onscreen, even with layers and enigmatic dimensions (ex: Hannibal Lecter), but The Power of the Dog gives us people less easy to peg, nail down or define.
Take Phil. He’s predatory, but not a predator. He’s feral, but not uncivilized. His rage isn’t simply an overcompensation for repressed sexuality; it is a consequence of pain and loss and, more deeply, it’s an armor that masks a genuine humanity, but one that doesn’t know how to express itself. In a masculine world, Phil only knows how to survive in masculinity’s most domineering form.
Cumberbatch embodies that internal dichotomy in the best performance of his career, disturbing us with Phil’s insidiously cunning, sociopathic impulses while gradually and credibly showing us that this merciless front is not who Phil really is at his core.
Peter, Rose’s college age son (who’s studying to be a surgeon), is Phil’s antithesis; the two are yin and yang, opposite sides of the same essence. Peter is quiet and frail, sensitive and tender, yet possesses an undaunted resilience. He may be an obvious target for having the slur “faggot” thrown at him, but he’s not allowed himself to be devoured by the wolves of this world.
Kodi Smit-McPhee plays Peter with a meek gentility, one that, while sincere, also belies a steady, steely resolve. Peter is a violet, to be sure, but not a shrinking one. Viewers may come to the movie to see Cumberbatch and Dunst (who are both excellent, as is Plemons in affecting moments of his own), but it’s Smit-McPhee that leaves the most indelible impression and will have people talking.
As a filmmaker, Campion delivers her most accomplished work since The Piano (at least in terms of scale and ambition; Bright Star is the more powerful of the two, both emotionally and thematically). The Power of the Dog builds with a steady, impending doom — seething yet palpable — set against the epic isolation of the American West.
To eerie effect, Campion mixes the serene visual poetry of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (there are stunning landscapes here, shot by Ari Wegner) and the grim grit of Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, all with her own delicate, intuitive empathy.
In its final moments, The Power of the Dog leaves us with a quiet wallop. It’s not a twist ending by any stretch, but it provokes a second viewing for similar reasons: when the credits roll, you find yourself rethinking everything you’ve just watched.
On subsequent examination, traits and nuances not initially apparent are suddenly so stark, increasing our sympathy while also leaving us more conflicted (but in meaningful, challenging ways), including the brief, poignant coda that’s somehow both valiant and chilling. There’s more going on underneath here than meets the eye.
The Book of Psalms is the source of the story’s title, specifically Psalm 22:20 that says: “Deliver me from the sword, my darling from the power of the dog.” Scripturally, that’s a direct plea by the Psalmist to be saved from those who are wicked, but it’s also a prophetic cry of Christ’s experience on the Cross.
We certainly see parallels to both of those cries here, but a third tenet also emerges: with regard to the power of the dog, Alphas come in many forms.