Movie Review: The Power of the Dog

The Power of the Dog is an unconventional Western psychological drama, directed by Jane Campion and based on the 1967 novel of the same name by Thomas Savage. According to Campion, “the power of the dog is all those urges, all those deep, uncontrollable urges that can come and destroy us”. Best known for The Piano, which earned her Best Director and won her Best Writing, The Power of the Dog delivers another brilliant selection of performances, which will stand her and her actors in a favourable position for repeat nominations come awards season.

The Power of the Dog begins with a special focus on a Romulus and Remus relationship pairing as charismatic rancher’s brother brings home a new wife and her son. Deeply perturbed by his brother’s newfound happiness and sudden marriage, Phil’s displeasure is served out as torment, wielding fear and awe to exasperate and intimidate. Branching out from their fractious relationship, the unruly Phil becomes a fulcrum to this suspenseful and slow-burning Gothic western drama starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons, Kirsten Dunst and Kodi Smit-McPhee.

Cumberbatch delivers one of his finest performances as a cantankerous cowboy who is resistant to change and happy to exert his toxic and power-hungry influence. Breaking type, he exhibits sly emotional intelligence and gumption rather than the calculated and precise Sherlock, Alan Turing or Khan we’ve come to expect. A chaps-wearing bigot with a banjo and a few secrets of his own, the explosive Phil takes centre stage as if he’s constantly gearing up to ride a bucking bull and needs an audience.

While intentionally more subdued, Cumberbatch’s supporting cast rally around him with strong and beautifully restrained work from Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons and rising star, Kodi Smit-McPhee. Plemons is cool, calm and thoughtful as George, almost a complete antithesis of Phil, commanding a quiet, intense and powerful performance on the other end of the spectrum. Then it’s wonderful to see Dunst trying to hold it together as a mother who’s overly aware of Phil’s disdain with a quietly tenacious and controlled turn from Smit-McPhee.

power of the dog 2021

“She hates me, she hates me alot…”

Campion is in full control, swathing us in a tense outback atmosphere and siphoning excellent performances from her talented cast. The film’s setting, genre, soulful depth, stirring performances, striking cinematography, inventive score and poetic undertone make it comparable with There Will Be Blood. The fact that it’s based on a novel and features Smit-McPhee, who starred in The Road adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s other novel, draws parallels with its 80th Academy Awards neo-western rival, No Country for Old Men.

Capturing timely themes by juxtaposing rich characters, unfurling without spoon-feeding and imbuing a raw enigmatic quality, The Power of the Dog is one of the best films of the year. What will temper your enjoyment of this finely crafted film is that it’s somewhat aloof, cold and elusive. These stern qualities play out in the characters, who struggle to relate with one another and comes through in the storytelling, creating some distance. While there are a few intimate moments, these are mostly fleeting, making it difficult to truly connect. Still, The Power of the Dog makes a compelling character study even if kept at arm’s length.

Masterfully blending its iconic cinematography, complex characters, emphatic performances and substantial themes by way of sensitive direction, it remains an outstanding Western family portrait and social commentary. The Power of the Dog may not be lovable, but there’s plenty to admire about Campion’s latest cinematic offering.

The bottom line: Captivating