THE POWER OF THE DOG is slow, meditative and patient. It is a film that takes its time to unfold the true motivations behind each deeply complex character, yet when the realizations occur, the emotional payoff is a disturbing, personal assessment of gender and generational trauma in the west. Easily one of the finest films of 2021, THE POWER OF THE DOG is Jane Campion’s triumphant return to cinema after an 11-year hiatus from directing. The movie contains gorgeous cinematography from the talented Ari Wegner, a haunting score from the prolific Jonny Greenwood, and some of the most powerful thematic strokes of the past couple of years of film.
Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Phil Burbank, an aggressive and outgoing rancher who runs a farm with his brother George (Jesse Plemons). Phil mocks George, calls him names, and exudes a mean-spirited demeanor which inspires fear in some and anger in others. His personality clashes with that of the kind and innocent Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Rose (Kirsten Dunst) Gordon, who serve them a fried chicken dinner in their dining establishment. George, however, takes to Rose and in no time the two are a couple and getting married, much to Phil’s dismay. Phil acts in spite towards Rose, treating her with malice and disrespect for taking his brother from him. His actions end up affecting Peter and Rose mentally, and his relationship with them ends up affecting the worldview of everyone involved.
From the very beginning of THE POWER OF THE DOG, Cumberbatch disappears into his character, making the audience afraid of his presence even if they know him from roles like Sherlock or Doctor Strange. His mannerisms and subtle facial expression speak volumes by saying very little, and his vulnerabilities slip through the cracks in some of the more powerful scenes. Cumberbatch gives perhaps the best performance of his career, and is just one piece of the complex puzzle that Campion intends on unfurling. The other highlight is Smit-McPhee, who, like Cumberbatch, begins the movie as a seemingly simple character but who proves to be more complex than meets the eye. Each lead performance in this film has to showcase one personality on the surface, yet show something else entirely underneath, and all four main actors step up to the plate in some of the best work of all of their filmographies thus far.
Campion has always been a filmmaker who understands the innate emotions behind a character’s actions, but here she outdoes herself by creating an emotional masterpiece highlighting the flaws and damage that can be caused through trauma and abuse. She shoots the film, even though it is set in the American West of the 1920s, in New Zealand, making the scenery a stunning backdrop to a deeply personal and rough narrative. The film starts out as a comment on toxic masculinity and how these ideals rub onto both others and the people that perpetuate it. The atmosphere that Phil creates on his farm is that of mocking others and being frightened of the norms that differ from the regular, and while he seems to revel in this life, his insecurities and personal secrets reveal that he too has been a victim of this mentality. Toxic masculinity is a corrosive poison that eats all it encounters, including the people who adopt it for their own benefit.
However, as Campion’s script progresses, it soon becomes clear that THE POWER OF THE DOG has far more on its mind than just one toxic man. The film turns into a case study of trauma passed down from generation to generation and how people justify the past through their own actions. Each character in THE POWER OF THE DOG has internalized their struggles in their own unique way: some perpetuate the problems that already plagued their lives and some do everything they can to stay away from the darkness of the past. Either way, the remnants of previous traumas remain with these people, as they do with any family that must deal with difficult truths.
The film also confronts the manner in which different personalities can clash with each other and cause the thoughts and beliefs of all involved to forever alter. Phil, for example, rubs off on everybody he comes into contact with, which is why his fellow cowhands partake in his petty and childish games towards others. However, as Phil interacts with Rose and Peter throughout the movie, we see bits of them transfer over to him and we realize that despite his opaque exterior, Phil has desires and thoughts that reflect those of someone who craves connection. The last act of THE POWER OF THE DOG is splendid, giving audiences some of the best symbolism in quite some time and leaving viewers with a multitude of thoughts and interpretations. Campion is truly a writing/directing master, and this film will likely bring long overdue attention to her work in general.
It must be stated that THE POWER OF THE DOG will not be liked by all viewers, and does not have a structure that many will find engaging. The timeline of the story is confusing at times and the film feels long due to the sluggish pacing that Campion relies on to let viewers marinate in the characters. However, the film is thematically rich to such a great extent that I never felt the slowness was unjustified. Campion explores trauma and toxic masculinity deeper than any movie I can recollect, and for this I don’t believe THE POWER OF THE DOG will be soon forgotten. This is a gorgeous film from start to finish, and I will be pondering the many motifs Campion introduces for some time.