Going into The Power of the Dog, well really, sitting on my comfortable couch and popping on Netflix, I had the expectation of experiencing a brilliant film from writer/ director Jane Champion. And what I witnessed was just that – a fine-tuned machine crafted in a methodical manner from the screenplay to the acting to the production design and down to the score. It’s the type of movie that gets the Academy Award attention not only because of what time of year it released in but the actuality that it’s a masterpiece of the craft. And in an over saturated year, The Power of the Dog will easily stand out amongst the crowded release schedule.
The story, in its simplicity, takes place in 1925 Montana and follows two brothers and Cowhands Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) ad George Burbank (Jesse Plemons). Phil and George are polar opposites – George is more reserved, kind, and laidback while Phil is loud, abrasive and arrogant. At a communal dinner, George meets and falls in love with Rose (Kirsten Dunst) while her son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is studying to be a doctor and doesn’t have the instincts that Phil or his crew have, making Peter a target for harassment.
Champion tells the story the way she wants to – a slowly drawn-out pace to establish characters and their sometimes-extreme personalities at the expense of actual excitement. Meaning, just as a part of the story gets deep into the melodrama, a new chapter starts, and momentum is lost having to build from the ground up. That’s not to say whats in the chapters isn’t interesting – it’s the relationships between the characters that matter most as that’s fully established in the first act of the film. Everything relies on the relationship between Phil and George, George and Rose, Rose and Peter, Phil and Peter and so on.
Benedict Cumberbatch is exquisite in his leading role. Benedict plays arrogance perfectly, channeling all that hateful energy into a best actor worthy performance. It almost feels like he’s typecast to play these roles of an arrogance anti protagonist. And in a western with a near bulletproof script, Cumberbatch gets to show his range without much restriction. Opposite him is Plemons – who exclusively plays the villain role but here gets to show his charming and affectionate side. I, like many others will never get over his character of Todd in Breaking Bad – he’s that good of a bad guy.
While the first act establishes Phil and George’s relationship (it’s not a good relationship either, Phil refers to his brother as “Fatso”), the real relationship that Champion’s script cares about the most is between Phil and Peter. Getting off to a rocky start because of Phil’s ignorance and homophobia, Peter is viewed by Phil as half a man. But as the film progresses through the chapters, the two form a bond that’s unexpectedly sincere. It’s a brotherhood type of bond that borderlines a sexual fantasy between the two. Both Benedict and Kodi are clear favorites with their grounded and emotional performances.
Thematically, The Power of the Dog is about choice. Rose chooses to drink heavily into alcoholism because of the choices Phil makes in viciously attacker her mental state. Phil is not a likeable character in the first act of the film – his motivations are to break up George and Rose’s marriage and undermine Peter who is overly protective of his mother since his father committed suicide. Champion also uses the films script to address mental health and how it affects people in a time when the topic is very taboo. Also, taboo is homosexuality – it’s played by McPhee and Cumberbatch with subtlety in the second half of the film – always moving closer but never fully diving into it. Phil and Peter share an intimacy not many would explore in this period – keeping these feels locked away never to be spoken aloud. Champion really utilizes the toxic masculinity of the period to see the relationship both characters share with one another.
The Power of the Dog is a flawed masterpiece. Almost excruciatingly slow paced with uneven momentum shifts, Jane Champion takes the story based on the novel of the same name by author Thomas Savage and methodically crafts a well-executed character study that is led by an unrestricted performance by Benedict Cumberbatch and a talented ensemble. Both Benedict and McPhee shine together while plot is secondary to the characters. Curb any and all expectations for this powerhouse of emotional depth and enjoy the ride.
Written By: Jane Champion
Directed By: Jane Champion
Music By: Johnny Greenwood
Cinematography: Ari Wegner
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Thomasin McKenzie
Where to Watch: Netflix
Release Date: November 11, 2021 (New Zealand), November 17, 2021 (UK and US)
Running Time: 2 Hours 5 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 96%
My Score: 4.5 out of 5
Based On: The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage