A film review by Craig J. Koban December 16, 2021

Rank: #2


2021, R, 126 mins.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Phil Burbank  /  Kirsten Dunst as Rose Gordon-Burbank  /  Jesse Plemons as George Burbank  /  Kodi Smit-McPhee as Peter Gordon  /  Frances Conroy as Old Lady  /  Keith Carradine as Governor Edward  /  Thomasin McKenzie as Lola  /  Genevieve Lemon as Mrs. Lewis  /  Adam Beach as Edward Nappo

Written and directed by Jane Campion, based on the novel by Thomas Savage


The best advice that I could possibly give to you regarding viewing the new Netflix produced THE POWER OF THE DOG is to go into it as cold and as soon as possible, as I surely did.  

This early 20th Century neo-Western - directed with great passion and a keenly observant eye by Jane Campion, her first film in over a decade - is a most unusual genre effort (unlike most period westerns of the late 1900s, this one takes place in 1925 Montana) that fascinatingly plays out as a masterful game of bait and switch with audiences.  Just when you think that you understand this film's rhythms and story machinations in chronicling frontier masculinity run afoul, Campion morphs it all into something vastly different about lopsided power dynamics, combating deeply rooted urges, living in denial, and, most importantly, revenge served in the most unexpected ways.  THE POWER OF THE DOG is an ultra slow burn affair that respects rewards audience patience, and when it ended I was convinced that Campion has re-emerged as a pre-eminent filmmaker with a distinct voice uniquely her own; it's an easy best of 2021 candidate through and through. 

Adapting Thomas Savage's 1967 novel of the same name, Campion breaks up THE POWER OF THE DOG into simple Roman numeral titled chapters (compellingly without word descriptions) to help cover and delineate the passage of time and how time for these characters acts as a silent symbol of escalating dread.  Early on we're introduced to two bothers in Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons), both of whom are successful Montana based ranchers in Roaring Twenties era Montana, and even though they are a fairly well oiled business unit the pair could not be anymore different.  George seems more urban and refined, whereas Phil seems somewhat trapped within his rural, cowboy ways and doesn't seem to keen on relinquishing them.  Phil learned how to be a tough talking, no-nonsense cowboy from his mentor and idol in Bronco Henry, and he lives his philosophy so aggressively that it makes him almost toxically antisocial in his quick rejection of just about anyone that comes into his line of sight.  If there's a way that Phil can make outsiders feel uncomfortable then he doesn't hesitate to make them feel it.  This dude is simply the poster boy for macho asshole incarnate.  Hell, even his portly and soft spoken brother in George can't escape his sibling's monstrous verbal assaults (he calls him "fatso" an unhealthy amount of time). 

It soon becomes clear to George that he needs to escape from his brother and settle down with a wife and start a family of his own, and he becomes very easily smitten with a woman named Rose (Kirsten Dunst) during a fateful dinner stop one day for Phil and his men.  Things start off remarkably awkward, though, as Phil finds reprehensible ways of mocking not only Rose (as she's serving him and his men), but he also finds great relish in lashing out at her teenage son, Peter (Kodi-Smt McPhee), who's an introverted college bound man with a passion for science that - based on his effeminate manners - just might be homosexual.  George becomes enamored with Rose, and she in turn reciprocates back, but when George reveals to Phil that he will marry Rose it infuriates him to no end.  He thinks that Peter is no worthy man to call a stepson and that Rose is a gold digging opportunist.  George steadfastly defends his new union, despite every effort from his deranged brother to sabotage it using every foul method at his disposal.  A three way psychological tug of war ensues. 



The cerebral battle waged between these doomed parties is what generate most of the intense drama of THE POWER OF THE DOG, especially for the lengths that Phil goes to in order to dismiss and insult Rose and her son at every waking moment.  As George grows closer and closer to Rose, Phil gets crustier by the second, which manifests in him extending no consideration to her whatsoever.  Rose, being a relatively meager willed and vulnerable women, does have the mental fortitude to put up with Phil, which drives her to becoming an alcoholic, which Phil discovers and tries to weaponize against her in social settings.  Phil's primary motive in life seems to be dominating and controlling people, especially those that he perceives (even wrongly and pettily) as some kind of threat.  This cretin is just relentless in his hostility, which makes much of THE POWER OF THE DOG so squirm inducing to sit through at times.  This is chiefly evident in one of the best scenes of any film from this year that has Rose nervously trying to play Strauss' "Radetsky March" on the piano (to appease George), only then to be utterly embarrassed by Phil, who can fluently play it with ease on his trusty ol' banjo, making Rose feel hopelessly beaten down.   

As mentioned, THE POWER OF THE DOG is so methodical in making viewers feel the intense levels of pure discomfort that Rose experiences, which makes the film almost Hitchcockian as a pure nerve wracker.  I greatly appreciated how Campion is in no rush to move one scene too quickly into the next and instead allows these characters (and their true motivations) slowly emerge organically through the story.  THE POWER OF THE DOG is like an onion that reveals more hidden dimension and textures as you peel away at it, and Campion's purposely measured approach is what makes it all simmer with so much low key terror.  Most of the focal point of interest hones in on the most detestable character here in Phil himself, who's not a one note, moustache twirling bad guy in a black cowboy hat.  There's a lot of subtext buried beneath his cold and calculating facade, one that's all about being a ruggedly manly outdoorsman that hopelessly clings to a lifestyle of old that's becoming outdated with the advancing industrialized times he occupies.  He seems to love his brother, but wants no part of living a respectable life of socialized privilege.  It's this collision course of the past and present (and future to come) that seems to torment Phil the most and leads to his unforgivable actions perpetrated on those that never deserved it in the first place. 

Based on all of this, one would think that you'd know precisely where Campion is taking viewers on this ride, but amazingly THE POWER OF THE DOG never dwells indefinitely on Phil's horrendous mind game tortures that he unleashes on Rose, and soon the narrative radically changes its focus on him crossing paths with her young son in Peter.  This section of the film is the hardest to talk about without engaging in major spoilers (which a shocking number of other reviews of the film have unfortunately dished out).  All I'll say is that Phil's relationship with Peter definitely does not go down the type of well worn path that we expect this film to take us on, and instead the more time Phil spends with this lad - and the secrets that Peter discovers about Phil's real subjugated thoughts that he has compartmentalized from everyone - the more all of these characters change the way that they interact with each other.  The completely unforeseen camaraderie that Phil and Peter develop only serves to make Rose madder and more driven to the bottle, even though Phil seems to be wanting to amend for his past indiscretions against these people.   

The way that THE POWER OF THE DOG torments and teases us with these shifting character dynamics and arcs is its most brilliant achievement.  Witnessing the nightmarish games of vindictive manipulation that Phil willfully engages on early in the film that gives way to some intricate thematic ground about denying your real identity and feeling trapped within well established gender norms of the era adds a whole added layer of dramatic complexity to the proceedings.  Complimenting this is how different this Western drama is from so many others that we've come across as of late or in the past.  Classic Westerns rarely embrace the time and place that typifies THE POWER OF THE DOG (namely, turn of the last century America) and also don't place prominence of characters and social norms over action and bloodshed.  Visually, Campion's Western certainly feels as lush and sprawling as the best out there (working with Oscar worthy cinematography by Ari Wegner, Campion achieves a staggering feat of movie fakery here in shooting on location in New Zealand - perfectly doubling for Montana - and the sun drenched panoramic vistas that permeate the screen here are as beautiful as they are foreboding).  Inwardly, though THE POWER OF THE DOG doesn't play out like an obligatory Western in any way.  Campion's film unravels into its final sections in a quietly rendered, Biblical toned ending that divulges a whole new savvy dimension to one character; it's as understatedly potent of a conclusion as I've seen in quite some time. 

I haven't talked nearly enough about the richly textured performances contained within here as much as I should have in closing this review.  Plemons is rock solid as his reserved brother that's caught between his wife and older sibling.  Dunst hasn't been this superb in a film in awhile as her wife that seems utterly broken down by her brief time with Phil.  Kodi-Smit McPhee has a really tricky performance challenge here in terms of not laying down all of his character's cards on the table and instead makes Peter seem more than the sum of his parts.  But make no mistake about it, the hypnotic vortex of interest in THE POWER OF THE DOG lies within Cumberbatch himself, who's never been so unendingly chilling in a role.  Considering his more theatrically mannered performances (and, at face value, him perhaps not being everyone's ideal choice for a Western villain), it's pretty astonishing to see the actor so fully and smoothly immerse himself in this role and make it so authentically rendered.  As mentioned, Phil is not a simplistic genre baddie here, but rather one that battles an ongoing crisis involves constantly having to show himself as roughest and meanest cowboy there is while harboring thoughts that could forever destabilize that image.  And props need to be given to Campion for finding ways to transcend troupes of one of the oldest movie genres.  THE POWER OF THE DOG shows her in complete authoritative command over this material.  

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