Can we see what is in one’s soul, when we’re so preoccupied with physical signifiers?
At the time of this writing, The Power of the Dog is considered the frontrunner to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. However, it may be an outdated notion to suggest that is the stamp of approval to the world that this was the best film of 2021. The Academy is steadily losing pop culture influence and has been for some time. It would be an upset if this year’s awards even matches the total viewership for the Euphoria season finale. However, an institution in decline can still get it right some of the time. The issue becomes the fact that there’s no single criteria for “best.” But Jane Campion’s slow-building period piece, based on Tom Savage’s 1967 novel, aims for importance. As far as the Academy is concerned, importance = best by default.
The Power of the Dog is a western set in the 20th century, following the story of two sibling ranchers, Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his brother George (Jesse Plemons). Phil is an unequivocal bastard, bullying his brother and various acquaintances like a high school jock. George is kind, reserved, and cognizant of people’s feelings. It’s George’s respectful demeanor that leads him to develop a romance with a young widow, Rose (Kirsten Dunst), as repence for Phil’s mocking of her young son Peter (Kodi Smith-McPhee). George and Rose wed quicker than a Disney princess, and Phil is none too pleased. Phil is so salty over his brother’s new life that he quarters himself off from everyone else in the house, refuses to bathe, and crashes a dinner party. So, he’s taking it quite well.
Meanwhile, Rose and Peter are still feeling the effects of personal tragedy. For Rose, this means diving into the bottle. For Peter, he remains reserved even while the macho guys he cohabitates with send insults directed at his sexuality. Peter seems like a fish out of water, as these men feel he is too dainty to be in proximity of their line of work. But surprisingly, Peter will find that he and Phil may have more in common than anticipated.
The film is expertly shot, blocked, and scored at the behest of director Jane Campion. Clearly a student of the western genre, Campion nearly bookends her movie with carefully framed shots reminiscent of John Wayne’s character in The Searchers (1956). In that aforementioned film, John Wayne was depicted as the uncivil outlaw that didn’t fit in the world of family and domestication. Here, Campion paints certain characters as more of a threat to the civilized world, framing toxic masculinity as a hindrance to peace and love. The issue becomes what measures should we take to combat that threat?
A lot has been made about this movie’s slow-burn nature, that it takes painstakingly long for Campion to show her cards. The expectation, some say, is that you must be patient with the movie, but once the reveals kick in the film is revelatory. However, I believe even that description is a misnomer. I don’t believe savvy viewers will be all that surprised by the movie’s destination or the themes at play. So, setting people up to expect some M. Night Shyamalan level twist by the end isn’t at all appropriate as that is NOT what this movie is.
Rather, The Power of the Dog is more akin to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread (2017). In the latter film, the ending isn’t some out-of-left field revelation, but a culmination of smaller reveals and character changes over the course of the movie. By the movie’s end, PTA has the viewer questioning the status of their relationship and brutal truths about marriage in general. In The Power of the Dog, the journey we’re on is quite clear – Peter’s manhood will be tested, and he will either meet Phil’s challenge or succumb to it. How Peter chooses to go about this challenge is ultimately what Campion wants the viewers to ponder. But it doesn’t seem like she’s here to blow anyone’s mind. Instead, like Phantom Thread (fun fact, both movies scored by Jonny Greenwood), the ending is less a reveal and more of an inevitable formality based on the character beats that are peppered throughout the runtime.
The cast is small, but efficiently superb. The winner is Benedict Cumberbatch, whose Phil Burbank is stern, icy, and a bit manic. We never come to like Phil, rather we find him and his undefined backstory to be fascinating. Cumberbatch takes his grumpy schoolteacher act from his Doctor Strange character, and turns it into something like a cruel gym teacher. His ideals are based on his deceased mentor, Bronco Henry. He won’t shut up about this man, and I’m sure George is plenty tired of hearing about how ole’ Bronco taught them both everything they know. Phil affords Bronco an affinity that he offers no one else, although the reason for that is easy to read between the lines.
Smith-McPhee is at times unnerving, and real-life couple Plemons and Dunst are sweet together. One of the film’s best moments is when Rose teaches George how to dance atop the grass, showcasing the tenderness the movie hopes for underneath the toxicity. Rose and George are much more open about what their hearts desire, while Phil is a closed book. But closed books, unattended and unloved, lead to dire consequences. The movie maintains this suspense without ever having to kick into overdrive. Rather, we get to watch top actors spar with each other, occompanied by the occasional beauty of the wide-open terrain. The story is an effortless climb to to the climax, prioritizing precision over wild swings.
The movie is not everyone’s cup of tea – it moves at a leisurely pace, is light on plot, and is dependent heavily on some standout performances. But what the film does is enact a masterclass of allusion. This is text and subtext co-mingling so well until they’re essentially one in the same. While it’s not a movie I’ll be revisiting over and over, I can’t say I wasn’t entertained and invested on first viewing. Campion’s film is a biblical allegory that attempts to redefine masculinity, by asserting that sometimes the most important muscle is the one you don’t see.
The Power of the Dog is streaming on Netflix.