Synopsis: In 1920s Montana, wealthy rancher brothers Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons) Burbank encounter widowed innkeeper Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst) while on a cattle drive. Lonely, introverted George soon strikes up a relationship with Rose, to the sneering displeasure of Phil, who looks down on Rose’s low social class. When George and Rose marry, Phil makes it his duty to make the latter’s life a living hell, even as he cannot help getting closer to her effeminate son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee).
1. The best film of 2021. And it’s not even close.
Verdict: Must Watch
2. Oh, you want more? It would be my pleasure. The Power of the Dog is a masterpiece of filmmaking in every way, with writer-director Jane Campion using every ounce of her immense talent to craft one of the most immaculate films I have seen in years. Every single scene in this is like a haiku – spare, lyrical, and without a single wasted second. The editing and shot composition are spectacular, and the sound design in particular deserves to be studied for years to show how the audio component of a film can elevate it to great heights. As for acting, Benedict Cumberbatch will garner most of the plaudits, with the actor finally achieving his fullest potential in a performance of unprecedented ferocity and subtlety, but he is ably supported by stellar work by the supporting cast of Dunst, Plemons, and Smit-McPhee. The Power of the Dog fuses text and subtext in an all-too-rare manner, with the movie’s themes clearly and powerfully conveyed through the drama and conflict between the characters without ever feeling didactic. It is a small movie that manages to feel as vast as the mountain vistas towering over its characters, with a deep and empathetic understanding of how intertwined intimacy and brutality can be in human relationships. The best thing I can say about this film is that I walked away from it feeling edified, as though some kind of deep yet ineffable understanding about life had impressed itself upon me. It’s a masterpiece.
3. The chief reason why this film is so spectacular is the woman behind the camera. Jane Campion’s very welcome return to feature filmmaking (her last was 2009’s Bright Star, which was only ok) is a stunning one and a ringing reminder of exactly why she won the Palme d’Or (for The Piano) back in 1993. As per Campion’s previous filmography, The Power of the Dog is primarily focused on the same themes of gender politics that she has so rigorously interrogated throughout her career. This film is proof of a theory I have that the best films about masculinity are made by women. (1) My suspicion is that it’s the personal distance that lends a greater objectivity, with male filmmakers often being unable to resist glamourising or aestheticising the toxic masculinity they are supposedly critiquing. Campion has no such problem with the character of Phil Burbank, and she even cleverly allows this perception to exist within the world of the movie through the rest of the ranchers, who marvel at Phil’s bullying ways, while not being privy to the deep pain and insecurity that drive him. Externally, Phil is the perfect cowboy – he makes his own rope, can castrate a bull in seconds, and refuses to bathe. However, it becomes immediately apparent that much of this is overcompensation for his high-class big-city background, as well as his frustration at his own perceived softness (along with some darker issues I will not spoil). The film thus positions the relationship between Phil and every other character on a knife edge, with him attacking any and all hints of femininity, be it George’s fat comfortable life or Rose’s … being a woman. But the real genius of the film comes in the fraught, twisted relationship between Phil and Peter, with revulsion on both sides transforming into a sense of attraction as both men recognise something of themselves in the other.
4. The queerness of the film can also be seen in its treatment of sensuality. As the film begins, Campion frames her characters (particularly Phil) through windows and doorways, allowing the viewer to see them only partially and from a long distance. It is no accident that our first glimpse of Phil is from behind, conveying the idea that this is a deeply unknowable and guarded man. Yet, as the film slowly spools out its complex narrative, the camera gets closer and closer, culminating in the midpoint scene where we finally see Phil bathe (something he swears he does not do), with the camera luxuriating in close-up in the glint of the afternoon sun and the swaying grass. And then, a hard cut to a long distance POV shot, the magic of the bath shattered as Phil realises he is being observed and panics. Nothing in The Power of the Dog is queered quite like enjoyment, with the simple act of being comfortable with one’s desires almost anathema in the world of the film. This is reflected in a fantastic tracking shot of the ranchers mocking Peter as he strides through the camp to marvel at some birds, followed by a cut to Phil, intrigued by the mere sight of someone unafraid of appreciating beauty. This film (like the aforementioned American Psycho) understands that the heart of toxic masculinity is a deep insecurity, and by juxtaposing Peter’s quiet confidence in his ‘unmanliness’ with Phil’s loud insecurity in his ‘manliness’, Campion slowly and expertly unravels that truth.
5. Beyond sexuality, this film is also one of the best dissections of social class I have seen since probably Parasite. The Burbank brothers are rich East Coasters playing cowboy, and the film presents two interesting possibilities for how that could work out, with George remaining uncomfortably stiff in his fancy clothes and Phil going so deep into the role as a reaction to his tony background. In this milieu is dropped the lower-middle-class Rose, who can neither adopt the pretensions of the upper class nor the hardscrabble nature of the working class. This inability to fit in is beautifully laid out in one of the best (if not the best) scenes of the year, where Rose tries to play the Radetzky March on piano to impress her new in-laws, only for Phil to humiliate her by being able to play it expertly on the banjo. It is a microcosm of the class conflict in the film, with the lower class woman failing to fit into upper class norms while the higher class man is able to expertly step into working class shoes … while still being unable to hide his posh background. The Power of the Dog avoids the easy, neutered version of class conflict that exists in most Hollywood films, and deals with the subject in an intelligent, measured manner that I wish more movies could imitate.
6. Speaking of Phil, it needs to be said that Benedict Cumberbatch finally delivers the performance he has long been capable of. Cumberbatch is a good actor, but like a precocious student coasting on natural ability alone, his roles have never been challenging in any way. Oh, another brilliant-but-troubled antihero? How original. The Power of the Dog then, represents Cumberbatch harnessing the potential he has always had by finally breaking bad and taking the obvious route that he has thus far avoided – playing the villain. Without the ‘tee-hee look how charming and insouciant he is’ aspect of Dr. Strange or Sherlock Holmes hanging around his neck, Cumberbatch is free to imbue Phil with as much venom as he can muster – which is a great deal. The formerly toothless barbs and casual arrogance of his previous roles is transmuted into real monstrosity, as both actor and director unleash Phil’s cruelty onscreen in a vivid and terrifying way. Small wonder that Rose and George wither under a single glance from him. And speaking of Rose, Dunst has long been one of Hollywood’s more underrated actresses, never given her due in her heyday and now seemingly cast to the margins (give or take a Sofia Coppola project). This movie thus serves as a firm reminder of her talent. Dunst has always been gifted at inscrutable empathy – being able to gain audience identification while playing a highly guarded or enigmatic character – and Rose fits right into this pattern, with Dunst excelling at conveying her discomfort with both Phil and her newfound wealth. Her husband Jesse Plemons continues to stake out a fine career as a character actor, and he might be one of the best right now at playing socially awkward introverts like George. Kodi Smit-McPhee also rises to the level of his more famous co-stars, doing sterling work in a difficult role that requires him to show both the tender and malevolent sides of a complicated character.
7. With all that said, it is just so rare nowadays to find a film for adults. (2) The Power of the Dog is precisely that, a wonderfully crafted work of cinema that trusts its audience’s intelligence to follow its complex themes and subtle plot. Jane Campion’s return to feature film is as majestic as the mountains of her native New Zealand, showing that her skill at writing, directing, and editing a movie have not diminished since her Palme d’Or, and if anything, her craftsmanship has improved to the degree of total expertise. In front of the camera, Campion is aided by career-best work from a brilliantly terrifying Benedict Cumberbatch, along with stellar supporting performances from Kristen Dunst, Jesse Plemons, and Kodi Smit-McPhee. It is a beautiful, stunning film that continually reveals new layers to its damaged, complicated characters, keeping the viewer under its spell from the first to the last shot. It’s the best film of 2021. And it’s not even close.