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  • Writer's picturePerrin Faerch

Review: The Power of the Dog (2021)

Updated: Dec 31, 2021

Delicate isn’t a word one would ever describe the Western genre. It’s a uniquely American genre that would prioritize and idolize the cowboy: a rough and tough symbol of stoic heroism. At least originally, there was nothing delicate or even complex about the genre as cleanly dressed, white men would save the damsel or child in distress from the savage natives and the darker-skinned invaders from south of the border. Thankfully, a sort of counter-culture formed within the white bread screen stories of old and created the anti-western - films that would go against the grain of what was expected of the genre that was littered with heroes barely sporting any flaws. Filmmakers from all corners of the globe would interpret and completely rework the genre as they look at these normally safe stories from a different angle, introducing challenging characters, themes, ideas and styles that would make audiences of early western cinema clutch at their pearls. Despite the evolution of the genre that would range anywhere from ultra-realistic all the way to magic realism, the genre’s evolution effectively slowed down, getting stuck on the same themes, ideas and once again, the usual stoic toughness of its protagonists and antagonists. This is why a film like Brokeback Mountain was a genuine boundary breaker within the traditional ideologies we associate with the macho, hard-nosed cowboy.

Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons) are brothers running a cattle ranch, but they couldn’t be more different from one another. George cleans himself and has a soft, quiet side to him, while Phil constantly berates and mocks him in front of everyone, calling him fatso and relishing in the filth of a hard day’s work. But one day, George finally finds an emotional connection with local restaurant owner Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and marries her, bringing her sensitive and curious son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) into the ranch to live with them.

Jane Campion returns for her first feature film in twelve years as well as four years after her stint as director, creator and producer on the excellent Top of the Lake series. Campion’s furious and still highly elegant feminist sensibilities have given us some of the strongest, most memorable female characters in contemporary cinema. Her characters suffer and grow on their own terms, creating some of the most layered female characters you could ever hope for. So it’s a deeply fascinating exercise to see her focus her attention squarely on toxic masculinity and the deeper interpretations of it. She slowly strips away layers of thick skin from Phil as we begin to peer deeper into his soul that is frightening, heartbreaking and ultimately, completely illuminating. It’s not all just about toxic masculinity within The Power of the Dog though, and this is where Campion’s versatility in exploring multiple themes within an overarching one is important. Her subtlety and consideration are telling as we go deeper into lanes of sexuality, individuality, class, connection and ultimately repression of ones true identity. Somehow, true to Campion's storytelling instincts, it never feels overcrowded in the observations and discussions it chooses to make.

Campion is a master of the slow-burn. The pacing of a film is one of the hardest acts to perfect not just in terms of the overall edit, but the way with which it is told through imagery and the actual playing out of each scene, moment and distinctive action of each character. Even highly adept masters of the craft can find themselves becoming self-indulgent the wider their canvas stretches as they lose sight of the overall goal and meaning of the story and its characters. Campion has never done this, and although I haven’t been a fan of some of her work in the past, she has always had her palm firmly pressed against each one of her works, gently guiding them to where they need to go in delivering its themes and messages effectively. It all feels so organic, and even though the film is still relatively lengthy at two hours, no moment is ever wasted. Like Céline Sciamma (Portrait of a Lady on Fire), her pacing of each beat whether story or character-wise feels entirely earned and, for a lack of a better word, real with how it plays out. Each moment and revelation is so carefully laid out, delivering many visuals and actions of metaphorical importance to the internal battles each one of these characters is dealing with, particularly that of Phil.

And that brings me to exposition. It can be used effectively and cleverly in films, but we are seeing it used and exploited far more often even in some great films lately. It’s becoming easier and easier for filmmakers to rely on it in explaining character details or plots without having to think too hard about how to relay said information to us. But this is also what makes Campion such an incredibly strong filmmaker, is that she wants to avoid exposition entirely. This is not to say anything and everything she does in The Power of the Dog is vague and hard to read, they aren’t. She lays the breadcrumbs through subtle symbolic imagery, natural dialogue and important actions and decisions made by her characters that don't make it hard to understand and read between the lines. Her understanding and execution of effective subtext within each scene are quite simply staggering.

Throughout the film, Phil is hard as nails. All his workers look up to him whereas George keeps him at a distance as his abrasive toughness pushes him further away into the arms of someone far gentler and more accepting of his sensitivity in Rose. Phil constantly mentions his mentor Bronco Henry throughout the film, a mentor who taught him everything he knows. He regales stories in awe, much in the same way we see portrayals of heroic barbarism from the cowboys in old western films. He is felt in all aspects of Phil’s life as he shows cruelty and disdain to anyone different from him and his team: insulting George on his weight and Peter on his effeminate nature (just to name a few). His cruelty knows no bounds. But beneath all the boiling hatred and refusal to be the same as his brother and high society family, a secret brews - one that we can’t quite place our finger on.

Again, this is where Campion’s intelligence as a visual filmmaker does all the talking. Show don’t tell is a golden rule in screenwriting, and it is so evident here in how she lays down all the breadcrumbs we need in order to truly unpack and read between the lines of Phil’s terrifying and intimidating persona. She doesn’t want us to hate him, he does that to himself, but she wants us to get to know and understand him as he overcompensates his toughness with actions that even surprise his fellow dusty cowboys, ones that continue to look up to him as their mentor in masculinity.

There are gorgeous, rugged mountains that surround the ranch, looming their daunting majesty over them. But once in a while, Phil takes a good long look at them with which no one can understand what he is looking at. “Is there something there?” a fellow cowboy asks, to which Phil replies “Not if you can’t see it there ain’t”. But there is, we can’t see it just yet but there is something hidden between the rough, looming might of the mountains. Once Rose and Peter assimilate themselves into the house, Phil continues to torment them, particularly Rose as he duels with his banjo against her piano playing in a scene that has him asserting his dominance once more. But it’s with Peter that Phil begins to show an interest in as he begins to reveal glimmers of his past to us. A repressed identity is in danger of escaping from Phil, but with Peter’s increased curiosity in his surroundings and attempting to fit in a little better with the others, it’s here where Phil takes him under his wing, to fit in. Hands are a key visual language for Campion within The Power of the Dog. The ability it has to sense, mend, play and destroy is all at the mercy of one’s hands and with that, we see the truest forms of Phil’s identity as he attempts to teach Peter how to make rope. Once again, it shows just how careful Campion is in placing all these clues within the story, clues that paint a surprisingly detailed map in figuring out the very person Phil is and who he chooses to show to us.

And again, this is where the pacing is vital as these moments and revelations come to us in the most natural of ways, opting for introspective private moments of its characters instead of big action set-pieces to convey and reveal their true selves. It blows me away with just how easy Campion makes it look, allowing for her cast to not only revel in each beautifully written scene, but to be a genuine part of the story’s thematic purposes and its mission of confronting toxic masculinity as a whole and not just the cowboy.

The ensemble is among the finest of the year, with each one of them playing an integral part within every fabric of Campion’s precisely woven tale. At its core, each character is in desperate need of connection and it’s the raging inferno of Cumberbatch’s Phil that prevents that from truly taking flight. Plemons shows once more how he is one of the most reliable and sadly, underrated actors around. He is highly versatile, and he shows that here with a reserved sadness and need for companionship as his brother pushes him further away, affectively alienating them both. He finds Rose, played by his real life partner in Dunst. Thankfully the chemistry of their real-life romance is reflected here as she tries her best to make her way into the heart and approval of George’s family. It’s a quiet and heartbreaking performance of needing to find acceptance among those who she feels are far above her. Smit McPhee also shows why he is one of the most fascinating young talents working right now. His curiosity and burgeoning desire to try fit in within his environment play perfectly in co-ordinance with Cumberbatch’s defiant cruelty as well as their shared desire to blend in even further.

But, it’s Cumberbatch’s Phil that is the focal point for what The Power of the Dog is all about. Themes of class, sexuality, repression, identity, individuality and the need to connect all swirl around and live through his character. It’s a deceptively dense performance that never finds itself confused or requiring the need to explode. It’s multi-layered and careful in its level of nuance, showing why Cumberbatch is one of the finest talents on the planet who always appears to understand the assignment. He appropriately looms over and dominates every moment and scene he is in, asserting his dominance over everyone as he inflicts a sense of unease, fear and even morbid curiosity at every given moment. Campion’s clear and concise writing helps in characterizing Phil, but it’s up to Cumberbatch first and foremost to help those carefully written descriptions, actions and dialogue come to life within his character. He refuses to let us in, but when he does, it showcases just how complex Phil is and how genuinely spectacular Cumberbatch is in making us believe it. It's a performance of complete authenticity as we begin to see ourselves within his motivations of needing to put on a different face in order to survive the world. Next to Anthony Hopkins in the devastating The Father, Cumberbatch has given the most revelatory performance of the year for me that will have me rooting for him come awards season.

Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead has been composing some of the most interesting and strangely compelling scores over the years starting with his chilling There Will Be Blood masterpiece. His work on Spencer this year is easily his most experimental yet but with The Power of the Dog it feels he has tapped into the same menacing tone as There Will Be Blood. There Will Be Blood was an appropriate backing track to the evergrowing ambitions, madness and greed of Henry Plainview. Instead, with The Power of the Dog, it seems as though he works backward and forwards simultaneously within the dust storm that is Phil. It’s a deceptive score that subtly shifts in tone and meaning as we follow along with Phil’s slow first steps out of the shadows before he retreats back to the darkness of it. Greenwood repeats this process as many times as Phil does, playing with the secrets that lie within him as well as allowing for moments of honest introspection and quiet loneliness to dictate the mood and power with which he composes each moment. Give this man a damn Oscar, it’s been long enough.

The Power of the Dog is not only my favourite Jane Campion film to date, as of December 1st, it's my favourite film of 2021. It’s simply perfect in everything that it does from its highly assured direction to how it somehow manages to be delicate in its confrontation towards something so inelegant as toxic masculinity. Campion’s distinct style and ability for clear, nuanced writing never pander with a heavy-handed touch, giving us smart, carefully effective subtext that lets each scene work things out at an appropriate walking pace. It’s a simply stunning piece of work that I cannot stop talking or thinking about. Expect it to be discussed as a true classic over the next few years, placing itself among the smartest, most important westerns in contemporary cinema. An absolutely essential lesson in subtle, intelligent, layered storytelling and filmmaking.

Where you can watch it: Netflix (Worldwide)

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